Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations


In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.

Posted in Filmmaking

Tips from a Former Casting Associate


Many actors think that the audition is just reading the lines. But many casting directors will deny this, and it’s a fact: the audition is everything you do from the moment you walk through the door until the moment you walk out. The actual reading is only part of your audition. The casting director wants to see not just your acting talent, but your talent and professionalism.

Here are some tips from a former casting associate…

Don’t Shake Hands

Just assume that everyone in the room is a germaphobe. Think about it — the casting director is seeing dozens of actors throughout the day. He or she doesn’t want to shake hands with each and every actor that walks into the room. A polite nod and smile will do.

Don’t Make Small Talk

We know you were stuck for an hour in traffic, and we know you had to travel across Los Angeles. But revealing these details will only make you appear desperate. You want to come off as warm and easy-going, not as someone who’s had a rough day. Which leads us to…

Only Respond when Spoken To

Oftentimes actors will come in and just dive into their life stories. While it’s important to make conversation if the casting director, director, or producer in the room starts asking questions and is genuinely interested in something to talk about, don’t try to make small talk just to cut through the awkward silence. You might go on to perform the best audition of the day, but if you stink up the room with a bad story about your dog or your boyfriend, you’re going to be less likely to be called back.

Acknowledge the Videographer

He or she is the one who makes you look good. Completely ignoring the videographer is risky because the videographer might not wish to go in for that perfect close-up and make sure the image is in perfect focus. Don’t literally flirt with the videographer, but make him or her feel special. It will only help you.

Don’t Ask if the Casting Director Wants to See It Another Way

The casting director has fifty more actors to get through. You just completed take one, but you feel one more take will truly set the room on fire. Don’t press your luck. If the casting director asks to see it a different way, then all the best to you. If not, get your stuff and be on your way. When in doubt, just remember — don’t piss off the casting director.

Don’t Fumble With Your Things on the Way Out

This may be the trickiest step of all. You’ve delivered your audition and feel good about it. You just know the casting director loves your talent and everything about your personality. Then you spend the next two minutes gathering up your three bags and bottled water, which just so happen to be scattered around the room. Make sure to put your stuff in an easily accessible location as soon as you enter the room so you can grab them with ease on the way out.

Be Sure to Thank Everyone for Their Time

Finally, be sure to give everyone a big smile on your way out, and most of all, thank everyone for their time. This seems like a given, but you’d be surprised by how many actors just waltz on out of the room after they act the scene. Thank everybody — they’re giving their time for you.

Following these tips will help you obtain more auditions and start booking jobs! Remember, the casting associate always knows best…

Posted in Filmmaking

The Importance of Thomas Edison


I’ve always been greatly influenced by many brilliant twentieth century filmmakers, like John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, and Alfred Hitchcock, but I often forget about the man who let this filmmaking process even become a possibility. I owe all my thanks to the gifted inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who invented the motion picture projector and would later synchronize films with phonograph audio to produce the first real movies. Edison is one who has greatly influenced the history of the United Stated, as he went on to patent over 1,000 different items, many of which we use today.

The early years of Thomas Edison were prolific and important to his success later in life. Edison was born in Ohio on February 11, 1847. Growing up, he spent much of his spare time experimenting with electrical and mechanical tools. While working as a telegraph editor in his late teens, he made his first real invention, a telegraphic repeating instrument that allowed messages to be transferred over a second line without the presence of an operator.

Edison then went to Boston for employment and an opportunity to put his invention ideas to the test. He created a few failed items, one being an unpractical vote recorder. By the sale of telegraphic appliances at the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company of New York City, Edison earned enough money to open his own laboratory in 1876. Unfortunately, American physicist Alexander Graham Bell had beaten Edison to the invention to the telephone, but Edison participated in the evolution of the telephone, as he soon after invented the carbon telephone transmitter.

Edison went on to invent many important devices in the decade following 1877. In 1878 Edison invented the phonograph, by which sound could be recorded mechanically on a tinfoil cylinder.

His most important invention came in 1890, when he created the electric light bulb, an invention that has since required careful research. If this had been Edison’s only invention, he still would be considered a huge influence on United States history, because after he invented the light bulb, suddenly life just got a lot easier. Many take for granted little things like electricity today, because it’s so prominent in everyday life. Edison followed the remarkable success of the light bulbs by trying to improve them, eventually developing the world first large central electric-power station

The remaining years of Edison’s life were nothing but quiet, as he continued to invent significant items, including the revolutionary motion-picture camera. In 1887 Edison moved his laboratory to West Orange, New Jersey, where he constructed a gargantuan laboratory for experimentation and research. The following year, Edison invented the kinetoscope, the first machine to produce motion pictures by a rapid succession of individual views.

He went on to invent some items as the electric pen, the Edison storage battery, and a wireless telegraphic method for communication with moving trains, but none of his later inventions quite measured up to the exquisite discovery of the motion-picture camera. To create the camera, Edison developed a phonograph in which the sound was impressed on a disk, not a cylinder. By synchronizing his phonograph and his kinetoscope, he produced the first talking motion pictures in 1913. If Edison could see how far the motion pictures have come since 1913, he would be in absolute delight at how far a simple film has evolved.

Thomas Edison was first and foremost a technologist, not a scientist — in fact, he added little to scientific knowledge. Edison was a man who set out to change the world with his grand ideas, hoping to invent items that wouldn’t just be little toys to play with for a few years and then be dumped on the side of a road. He wanted to essentially change the world, which he marvelously accomplished multiple times.

Thomas Edison is a spectacular individual who will always remain in my heart as an omniscient force that lets me create my own ideas, feelings, and expressions through a medium he let prosper — films. Edison was a great influence to the history of the United States as a result of all of his accomplishments, but he’s also a great influence to me, and always will be.

Posted in Filmmaking

The Growing Technology in Documentary Filmmaking


Technology has had such a profound impact on filmmaking in the last two decades that it is easy to almost take for granted just how much it has influenced the way we look at movies. For example, the computer has changed everything we know about movies. From the early CGI-effects in Tron to the impressive CGI in Jurassic Park to the startling use of CGI in the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, the computer has become an essential tool for filmmakers looking to enhance their stories with special effects. Equally important is the digital wave of filmmaking, which has given respected directors the freedom to tell their stories cheaper and faster.

Technology has arguably had even more of an impact on documentary filmmaking. As the marketplace for documentary films continues to grow, the booming technology of recent years has done nothing but assist documentary filmmakers tremendously with telling their stories in the way they want them to be told.

Up until the 1990s, documentaries were never that commercially viable compared to narrative films because the technology didn’t exist for documentaries to truly pose any significant threat. Film festivals were still not quite prevalent yet, and the slowly-growing digital medium was still years away.

Cut to the dawn of the new millennium, when a movie called The Blair Witch Project comes along to shake up the industry. When a movie like that, which cost just pennies in relation to the millions of dollars it made at the box office, comes along, people start to take notice, and other filmmakers begin to see that in order to be successful, one doesn’t need fifty million dollars to make a movie.

The last two decades have shown an explosion of documentary films, primarily because the technology now allows for anyone with a dream to go out and make a movie. All one literally needs is a camera, a computer, an editing program, and an idea.

There are positives and negatives to this wave of filmmaking. The positive is that now people with important stories to tell have the easy means to get the equipment and the resources to make their films. Also, the more documentary films entering the marketplace as a viable form of education and entertainment, the more documentary filmmakers will feel inspired to bring forth their own work and find more stories to tell. The negative is that the new technology forces such a great number of films and competition at film festivals that up-and-coming documentary filmmakers have to be really creative in their storytelling and film-making. There isn’t room for mediocrity in the documentary marketplace; the need for unique visions is crucial, and the power of story is everything.

The documentary filmmaker Jonathan Caoutte is the perfect example of somebody with little film-making experience and an even smaller amount of dollar bills in his wallet who took an ingenious idea and creatively put together a very personal and fascinating film. His 2004 film Tarnation cost only $218 to produce and met critical and financial acclaim, going on to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards and making nearly 600K at the box office. In looking closely at Tarnation, one will be able to see the manner in which technology played a role in the film, particularly concerning its iMovie editing system and digital evolution, and the way in which Caoutte brilliantly uses the archival footage of various technologies throughout the film to comment on a generation shaped by popular culture.

First, it’s important to look at the various technologies that exist for editing systems and how director Caoutte put his film together. It’s incredible to think that non-linear editing systems didn’t come into full use until the 1990s, as, before then, editors had to put films together by hand, painstakingly. Non-linear editing systems gave editors the freedom to scroll through the shots and timelines on their computers easily, being able to make a cut at the push of a button.

The most significant and highly used editing platform was, and still is, the Avid system. Most films released theatrically, even today, are edited on the Avid platform. There are various Avid programs priced low for consumers, but it still one of the more expensive programs of the bunch. Slowly catching up to Avid is Final Cut Pro, which has become a major player in major motion pictures. Avid and Final Cut Pro, while easily obtainable by general consumers, are thought to be for high-quality projects.

Apple’s iMovie, however, is not typically considered for anything suited for the big screen. The idea of sometime editing a feature-length film on iMovie and then getting into A-list festivals like Sundance and Torontos and getting theatrical distribution from that very film edited on iMovie was essentially unheard of before Tarnation. This goes to show the power of story and the creative use of the little that director Caoutte had to work with. He isn’t someone who sat down to edit his film knowing exactly what to do. Instead, he had a story and hours of archival footage to wade through to create a documentary film, and clearly, he is a born filmmaker, because he knew exactly how to put the film together in his own head.

Even though it’s looked down at as a bad seed compared to its much higher honored editing counterparts, iMovie has many positives that can be used for the inexperienced editor’s advantage. Caoutte has said that using iMovie was easy because it doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as other editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro. One has to read the manual and truly practice to get used to these two editing systems, but anyone can sit down and learn very quickly the style and mechanics of iMovie. Music can be loaded onto iMovie much quicker than the other systems as well, and since music played such a vital role in Caoutte’s editing strategies, he was able to cut the film very fast, even though he wasn’t an experienced editor.

Another positive aspect to the iMovie technology is that it doesn’t allow for long periods of rendering time compared to Avid and Final Cut Pro. While the other editing programs can take upwards of multiple hours to render footage for playback purposes, iMovie renders extremely fast in order to cut down waiting time. This aspect to the iMovie system is particularly important to Caouette’s film because of the use of all the titles. With the dozens and dozens of titles used throughout the film, it is essential that he didn’t have to wait around for them to render in a much slower editing program. Caouette was able to edit on his own time and be able to take the fast editing time to its fullest extent. There is nothing like the dread of waiting when it comes to a creative editor looking to put together the expansive puzzle of hours of documentary footage. Caouette, who had hours and hours of archival footage to work with for his film clearly had no intention of ever having to slow down.

The digital component to the film-making process and the lightning-fast speed of the editing duties with Tarnation contribute to the highly unusual production of the film, and allow for true experimentation. There is no way that Caouette could have made the film the way he did in the 1990s because the technology wasn’t there yet. It would’ve been really difficult to take twenty years’ worth of archival material and put it together seamlessly in a film.

Just a few years’ time and the instant access of iMovie allowed Caouette to not only put his film together, but experiment with structure and images. iMovie has a bunch of digital tricks installed into the program, and Caouette feels no shame in trying the majority of them in his film. He not only uses fast cuts and slow-motion in parts of the film; he also uses repeated images, split-screen, and kaleidoscope effects. All these digital tricks add to the innovative nature of the film. Most experience filmmakers trying to tell a similar story would veer away from any sort of tricks because they learned in film school and/or in making other films that using digital tricks isn’t the right way to go. Caouette thankfully goes against the mainstream and throws in some tricks not just because he can but because it adds to the emotion and personal journey he experiences in the film.

In a similar respect, the music in Tarnation is particularly engaging, but it is clear that the filmmaker wasn’t thinking about clearance rights while putting the music together. He uses an eclectic group of artists like Nick Drake, Glenn Campbell, and Frank Sinatra, and he oftentimes edits to music, not caring like many other filmmakers would about how later these songs could be used if the film were released theatrically. Caouette succeeds in so many ways with the film because of this lack of hang-ups, the freedom for expression, the will to put anything he wants on the screen, and the skill for telling a story the way he wants to tell it.

The archival footage starts to showcase how Caouette has grown from a frightened, closeted child to the man he is today, but the footage also serves to comment on a generation shaped by popular culture, bombarded with bursting technology, and influenced by various forms of media. Tarnation is unique in that it doesn’t use any kind of on-location shooting, script, or actors.

When Caouette set out to put the movie together, he didn’t necessarily have to shoot very much. He already had most of his material in twenty years of archival footage. He had been documenting his life from a young age. As a sexually confused teenager living in a less-than-ideal household, with a mother battling schizophrenia and grandparents dealing with their own mental problems. The best way for Caouette to escape was through the use of home video. While the technology for home video was quite rough in the 1980’s, the possibility was already there for him to truly document as much of his life as possible. He surely didn’t think at a young age that one day long down the road he would use all the footage to put together a personal documentary (which makes it even more astonishing that he kept all the footage in tact for its use in the film years later) — instead, the video was a momentary way to vent his feelings on camera in any way he wanted. He could talk to the camera, he could act and play various parts, and he could lose himself in a moment where suddenly all the terrible aspects of his life have drained away.

The archival footage brings forth even more of a story when Caoette started to film his family members, including his mentally unstable mother and eccentric grandparents. The younger Caoette pushes the camera into their faces looking to get any kind of juicy material he can get a hold of. As he grows older, however, Caoette begins to mature as both an artist and a person, finding better access into his life and the lives of his mother and grandparents through the use of the camera. As his life goes on, the quality of the video technology improves, going from really poor Hi-8 tapes to the mediocrity of VHS tapes to the more acceptable but still semi-crude look of DV. The audience of Tarnation gets to see a man age twenty years and find not just a transformation in himself but a bonding with his fragile mother, who leans to him for help even when she’s extremely upset at him for trying to ask her personal questions on camera. By the end of his journey, he is obviously scarred by the horrors and problems he has faced in his life, but there is a possibility of hope when all is said and done, and in a documentary as personal as Tarnation, that ending factor makes the film quite moving.

Video technology has made an entire generation of both filmmakers and non-filmmakers shaped by popular culture. Nowadays anyone from the age of five to ninety-five can pick up a camera, make a movie, and stream it on the web for all to see. This major concept was most assuredly not really present in Caoette’s time of living through his hellish teen years, but the technology was advanced enough at the time for young people to finally be able to make little movies and create early kinds of blogs to not just pass the time but educate themselves about making movies.

Today’s group of young filmmakers is the first group to have access to cameras and editing equipment at a very young age, and thus, the opportunity for more unique visions are possible at an earlier age than ever before. Caoette had never made a high-quality motion picture before Tarnation, but he had seen a lot of films and had made so many little videos as a kid and growing adult that the knowledge was there — he just had to find the means to lay it all out on a blank canvas and see what he could paint, so to speak, with his technological tools. The archival footage shows that an entire generation found the possibility to speak their minds not just by conversations with others but also through the means of technology, bringing forth the possibility of documenting a life on camera. While something as high-concept as Peter Weir’s The Truman Show seems like fiction, we are entering a time when a person can document every day of his or her life if he or she wants to. The possibilities when it comes to the newfound digital technology are endless.

The difference between Caoette and a zillion other young filmmakers, both in the narrative and documentary realm, is that Caoette understands the power that twenty years of footage can hold if put together in a film that has weight, meaning, and accessibility. There are probably many other filmmakers who have tons of footage, but much of it may have lost or destroyed, or there is nothing to really make of any of it. Caoette has the good fortune of not only having archival footage that promises a fascinating personal journey but also archival footage that tells a heartbreaking story about a relationship between a mother and son that has become difficult and trying over the years.

Caoette uses his skills to blend together the endless hours of footage with a unique blend of editorial prowess and bells-and-whistles finger punching to create a voyeuristic journey into the psyche of a troubled young man. The utter accessibility of video technology has allowed for this story to be told, and it is vital that the success of Tarnation be inspiring for other young filmmakers who are now part of the digital revolution of film-making to tell stories their way, no matter the small cost. $218 can surely go a long way.

Posted in Filmmaking

Helpful Tips for the Aspiring Film Director


In my early years of film production, many people have told me that my work would be a lot better if I had better actors. I always attributed these comments to the fact that I must not have the best actors in my movies. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized that it’s typically not the actors who are amateurish; it’s my skills as a director. Delia Salvi’s book Friendly Enemies ultimately helped me both inside and outside of film school, and I have since felt much more confident about my relationship with actors. The book is easy to read and is filled with page after page of useful commentary and activities. I particularly like the layout of the book with its three wholly different but all necessary sections.

Understand the Needs of the Actor

The first section starts as an introduction, then takes the reader through basic understanding of both the actor and the director. This is important because before one sets out to direct a play or a movie, one must be in touch with himself and understand the needs of an actor. An important issue brought up in the first chapter is that there are many different actors that a director will encounter. Not any two actors are the same. One might work with two actors in a scene, and one will be an intellectual actor, and the other may be an intuitive actor. The director has to bring his strengths to the scene by working in two very different ways for both people.

While the director is responsible for dozens of different things during a production, he must also be aware of the actors’ needs, such as energy, rehearsal time, and good old-fashioned trust. On previous projects, I’ve never allowed my actors to take their time to find the characters, as I’m always moving so fast. Now I know that I need to gain trust from my actors by allowing them time to find what they need to give good performances.

Find Your Voice as a Storyteller

Probably the most enlightening chapter of the early part of the book is the chapter on getting to know thyself as a director. While it’s important to learn everything I can about actors, it’s more important to learn exactly who I am as a director and what I’m trying to set out to do. I’ve always felt a little nervous around actors, because I feel like I might say the wrong thing, I might lose trust and I might not get the best performance. This chapter of the book has a lot of interesting material to say about directing for results. This style of directing doesn’t work because it doesn’t allow the actor to realize how he or she is getting to that result. This note about directing may have been the most helpful aspect of this book because I have directed for results throughout the years, especially when I don’t really know what to say to the actor, and I now know that directing for results is wrong in every way. The actor needs to know where he or she is going and can’t be sad or excited just because I need him or her to be.

Also important is the chapter on the actor’s language; after all, we need to know that language. All the info about personalization and substitution and sense memory need to be ingrained in the brain because they’re essential to know for the acting process. I’ve also really come to love improvisations, and further chapters on preparation, casting, and resolving problems on set are filled with a ton of useful tidbits and tools that I will be looking back at as I embark on future films.

Analyze the Characters

The second section of the book takes a specific look at Elia Kazan’s director’s notes for On the Waterfront. This section is fantastic because it takes the tools and practice demonstrated earlier in the book and puts them to good use for the reader. Particularly when it comes to preparation of a scene through use of actions and beats, the scene in question is important to read for any director. First of all, the chapter goes through a tremendously thorough character analysis for both Terry and Edie. It goes through character motivations, relationships, backgrounds, etc. The way I see it, the more I know about my characters in my film through this kind of breakdown, the better prepared I’ll be on set when actors are asking me questions. There won’t be anything I can’t answer. Then the chapter features a scripted version of the scene, along with beats and actions for the actors. This example serves as great food for thought for any future complicated scene I write for a film.

Tell the Truth

The third and final section of the book features conversations with directors and actors. Instead of only one writer telling the reader how everything is the entire way through, she features interviews with people in the industry and get their feedback on certain topics she has already touched on earlier in the book. I was particularly fond of the interview with director Todd Holland. As a director, I find much more interest in drama/suspense storylines than comedy. I don’t think I’m good at making comedic films and work mostly in the more dramatic kind of fare. Holland says something interesting about the genres in that when it comes to comedy, which he himself didn’t think he was very good at, there needs to be even more truth in the performances than in drama and suspense. Also, it’s harder to be cinematic in comedy because the hilarity doesn’t ensue if there are too many camera tricks.

85% of Directing is Casting the Right Actors!

I was also fascinated by Alexander Payne’s interview. A terrific director — all of his films are excellent — he knows first-hand how to get great performances from his actors, and his candid commentary about working with actors and casting directors is very interesting. He talks about a scene he did with Reese Witherspoon in Election where she had to cry, to get somewhere deeply emotional inside herself. Even though she had gone through way too many takes than she could really handle, he made her do one more, and this technique worked because Witherspoon was so frustrated with having to do another take that the performance really shined, and this take is in the film. I also enjoyed his discussion on how he works in auditions, as sometimes he’ll give the casting director the direction, not the actor. He takes the casting process very seriously. It has been said that casting is 85% of directing, and the sooner all directors realize that, the better off they will be.

Posted in Film, Filmmaking

The Power of the Personal Documentary


Everyone is fascinated by personal stories. When it comes to movies, most viewers need personal human stories to be told well on the screen, or else the viewers begin to tune out. For example, while big-budget action blockbusters can be entertaining and fun, there is generally little to take away from them. Films that deal with real human issues and are told in unique and clever ways are the kinds of films that viewers take the most away from. When it comes to documentaries, viewers will often try to confide in personal stories told on screen and be most moved by stories that affect them or their personal lives in a way that might affect another person differently.

It’s important to look at the power and possibility documentaries have not just on audience viewers but on intelligent, articulate individuals in society who can take the issues brought up in these kinds of film and share them with others. While one can learn something from a great non-personal documentary, there is something truly special about discovering characters in these kind of films, because it is almost as if the viewer is getting a glimpse of a life or lives in real time.

The first great aspect of personal documentaries is the intimacy the viewer has with the personal subjects and/or documentary filmmakers. Because the filmmaker is so well connected to the figures featured on screen — in some cases, that figure can be the filmmaker himself — the audience feels the intimacy just in the way the film is put together.

The second aspect that truly lends power to the proceedings is the nature of the subject’s behavior in relationship with the filmmaker that he or she or them actually know or knows in real life. When it comes to documentary film, it is very difficult to have a clearly pure observational view of a personal life.

Take Michael Apted’s acclaimed Up series for example. Every seven years, Apted interviews the same group of English individuals, checking up on their lives and seeing what they are accomplishing and feeling regrets about. This is one of the most pure types of documentary cinema because we are not actually following the subjects all the time, like in Peter Weir’s fictional The Truman Show; we merely check in with them every seven years. We are under the impression that these people are living their lives without any response to the series of documentary films being made about them.

Still, there is that slight possibility that the subjects are doing things in their lives that they wouldn’t ordinarily do if their lives weren’t being captured on film every few years. It is also possible that the subjects want to impress filmmaker Apted with recent happenings in their lives. It is almost a given that this theory isn’t the case, and that the subjects in the Up series really do lead their lives without any interference from the movies that are made about them, but it can’t be proven one hundred percent.

When a personal documentary is made, there is a special relationship between the subject and filmmaker, and that kind of relationship makes for a much different kind of viewing experience. Imagine a filmmaker who walks down a sidewalk and asks various anonymous people questions about important issues in America today. The kind of answers that filmmaker receives from anonymous people he doesn’t know will be far less personal and involving than if he receives answers from a personal family member or friend, documented in a way that provides intimacy and context for the viewer. The most personal documentaries are the most involving for viewers because the film works in two ways, one as an exploration into a subject or subjects, and another as a special relationship between subject and filmmaker.

The third aspect that articulates the power of personal documentary is the manner in which commentary and actions on screen become so deeply personal that the viewer almost feels as if he or she has stepped into the immoral act of voyeurism. Before there were personal documentaries, there was James Stewart looking out an apartment window into other hotel rooms with a giant pair of black binoculars in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Voyeurism is something that everyone experiences in their lives — there is something intriguing about looking into the lives of others when they don’t know you’re looking at them. Voyeurism has been used in fictional film for decades, and it can be a great tool to create suspense because, really, all movies are voyeurism. We sit in the audience anonymously looking up at the screen as observers to characters who don’t know that we are out there in the audience. Personal documentaries represent one of the greatest uses of voyeurism because we are witnessing heartbreak, happiness, real life. It can be almost as if we are walking by a person and overhearing a conversation or seeing a life-altering event. The more personal and more voyeuristic the circumstances on screen, the more we think we need to turn away but truly can’t stop watching.

Documentary filmmakers can construct their own personal documentaries in a variety of ways. They can strip away a small layer from the interviewee on film, merely showing the exterior of the person and not digging deep. They can allow the interviewee to open up to his or her discretion, finding out intimate details through conversation. They can go far and allow the audience an intimate view at a life that is truly worth investigating and exploring. They can take the film so far that it reaches the point of unabashed voyeurism, seeing every aspect of a person’s life, and hearing from that person’s lips all the fears and joys that made his or her life the kind it turned out to be.

There are many kinds of personal documentaries, but the best are the ones that stay true to the source and that make the audience learn a little something right along with the filmmaker. The power and possibility of the personal documentary has barely scraped the service, and the future holds many more great pieces of work that will open audience’s eyes up to more fascinating questions and ideas.