A Man is Not Planning to Move to LA or NYC
My latest article for Frame.io went up on their blog on Monday. It’s about why aspiring TV and features editors should move to Los Angeles or New York (or London). Writing for a business is a tricky business, since you have to remain more or less objective, which means you may have to lean away from your own bias. My name is under the article’s title, but if you asked me my opinion on the same question in person, I’d have a much more qualified answer. Here’s part of that answer.
I aspire to write (yea, even direct) feature films. Yet I have no plans to move to New York or LA (or London). Where do I get off telling others that’s what they have to do? For one thing, the article I wrote is specifically directed at editors, not writers or directors. Editors are not high on the filmmaking totem pole. They bow to the needs of the production (despite the fact that the editor has more control over the finished film than anyone else involved except the director). Unlike writers, who also bend the knee, editors are almost always on-site with the director. No months of working in isolation for them. (Where the post-production is, there the editors will gather…) Some of the pros we interviewed for the article admitted that new tools are changing things (Frame.io!) and that sometimes a small-town editor gets to cut a big film (see John Gilbert). But, as a general rule (for now), editors need to be physically present with the rest of the team.
Writers have a better chance of working off-location than editors. A screenwriter can spend months working alone before he needs to meet with the director. And screenplays are easier to email than full-res video files. Since writing is my strong suit, I’m hoping I can make non-LA writing work for me. On their excellent podcast, Scriptnotes, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have urged their listeners countless times to move to LA if they want to pursue screenwriting. Their reasons make sense. And yet, the fact of it is that those reasons only apply to people who want to make screenwriting (and nothing else) their full-time job. There are lots of people who don’t live in LA who have written movies (novelists, journalists, playwrights, teachers, even filmmakers) and plenty of screenwriters who left LA after a while to pursue other interests. Writing travels well.
What about directing? Don’t you need to be LA-based to get that next directing gig? Yeah, probably. But who wants that? Frankly, most of the films coming out of the big-time movie studios these days bore me. They leave a sour taste in my mouth. Why would I want to make movies like that? The most interesting movies right now are labors of love from people outside the studio system, who then get courted and admitted into that inner circle. I would much rather make a small film on a shoestring budget and my own terms than spend a decade scratching my way to the top of the Hollywood heap and be rewarded with a job directing Avengers XIV.
Though I would love to write movies and direct them, it’s not my highest priority. People who live in LA admit that it sucks, especially if you don’t have a big income. The traffic is a nightmare. The industry is petty and immature. And it’s far away from most of my relatives (and my wife’s). I don’t want to raise a family in that environment. I’d rather raise them somewhere where we can live close to our church and school and get to know our neighbors. Somewhere that’s not covered by smog eighty percent of the time. I’d rather make an impact in a small, insignificant place than no impact at all. Raising a healthy, godly, mature family in a thriving church is a bigger priority for me than working as a full-time screenwriter (or editor, or director).
I believe that it’s possible to write and make films without living in LA/NYC/London. It’s hard, but possible, especially these days. If you want to edit big-budget features or mainstream TV shows, you should move to one of the Big Three. But if you’re willing to be a Hollywood outsider – and see a lot less money – you can live anywhere and still make movies. And your movies might be better for it.
A Man Passes on Some Straightforward Expectations
To film editors: Do your time
I contributed another article to the Frame.io blog. This one’s about the pros and cons of working remotely, specifically for those who aim to edit feature films or big TV shows. The uncool bottom line is that aspiring editors have to do their time in one of the Big Three production hubs (LA, NYC, London) before they can even think about working from some remote location where the traffic is swift and the views are gorgeous.
My favorite thing about this article is the range of editors who put in their two cents. We had everyone from Chris Frith (who worked on Mission: Impossible—Fallout) to Paul Machliss (Edgar Wright’s go-to editor) to Doug Pray (co-editor and writer on HBO’s The Defiant Ones). One of Doug’s main reasons was the “energy of the edit suite.” Here’s how he describes it:
The shared laughter over a particular edit, the arguments over structure, the process of being in a room and staring down a ton of index cards, the emotional camaraderie between editor and director, or fellow editors—these are highly valuable. And the most important thing of all: watching edits with others in the room with you. This is usually the best way for me to really know if an edit is working or not, because I’m somehow able to see the cut through their perspective. When I’m alone, I can get halfway there, but nothing replaces an audience (or having a director, producer, fellow editor, neighbor, or whoever, in there with me).
What a Man Watched in 2019, Pt. 1
A Man Makes No Emotional Sense
Francis Spufford is a talented novelist. He has won prizes for his non-fiction. So I was interested to read his “non-defense” of Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there and one chapter (“Yeshua,” for those with the table of contents in front of them), it was, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “not great.”
The problem, as I see it, is that Spufford is trying to have it both ways. He both does and does not want to defend his Christianity to other smart Brits. He does, because he doesn’t like being mocked by them (understandably so). He doesn’t, because he doesn’t really like formal apologiae, defenses of Christian belief. They are, he would say, not true to the actual experience of being a Christian. The question he wants to answer is “what does it feel like to be a Christian?” He’s going for “emotional sense.” Does he manage it? Sort of.
The book is laid out in a definite order, if not quite an argument. Spufford starts with what he calls the “human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU, for short), which he assumes we will all recognize. Given that HPtFtU, especially as it applies to one’s own personal life, it makes sense that the next emotional (not logical) step is to peer into every corner of the universe in search of help. Many people find no help at all. Some people, Spufford among them, find, somewhere at the back of things, a kind of intuitive sense of all-powerful goodness. He sits in a quiet church, closes his eyes, and lets his thoughts roam freely. His insignificance washes over him. His utter helplessness. His wish to make things right. And, Descartes-like, he realizes that his very wish for goodness is a sign that goodness must be out there, somewhere. Despite his crookedness, he remains alive, though small beyond comprehension. Something larger and better than him consciously keeps him going. Throwing himself on the mercy of that large, good thing seemed like the best course of action. As an acquaintance of mine likes to say, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Looks like it’s time to worship!”
From there, Spufford reaches the problem of pain. (If there’s some all-powerful goodness at the back of things, why do I hurt?) His answer to the problem of pain is to throw up his hands and say, “No idea. All the explanations are bollocks. Christians just move on.” Okay… Moving on is part of it, so let’s do that now. Next up, a man in ancient Israel, a man who is that all-powerful goodness and yet fragile and time-bound and utterly human. Spufford’s description of Jesus’s ministry and death is the strongest part of the book by far. Nearly all of the “emotional sense” of the book is contained in this one chapter. The resurrection passes in a blink, then there’s a sort of muddle while he goes through all of the bad things Christians have supposedly done. His treatment of tradition is pretty poor, as is his understanding of the Bible. He has very odd ideas about morality, especially sexual. But he stalwartly declares his union in the body of Christ with undesirables such as Sarah Palin, whom he personally finds horrifying, so I have to admit that, yes, Francis Spufford is a brother in Christ. Christ, check. Church, check. Grace and peace, brother.
I may have mis-remembered bits and pieces of the book in my summary since I don’t have it in front of me. That’s entirely appropriate, since Spufford did no research for his writing, either. I did admire his willingness to admit that he could be wrong about things, but he was far too willing to distance himself from uncool intellectual positions. “Not all Christians believe thus-and-such” was his favorite line.
More than anything, the book affirmed my belief that, when Christians waffle on Scripture, they waffle on everything. Spufford pegs the early chapters of Genesis as a quaint myth. The Old Testament testifies to the Hebrews’ slow understanding of monotheism. The gospels were assembled decades after Christ’s ministry. (Yeah, right. These were Jews, Francis. They wrote down everything.) I may be one of the “really stubborn Americans” he mentions several times in the book, but I’m convinced that we have to treat the Bible as God’s Word, no matter what uncomfortable situations that may put us in (including defending creatio ex nihilo). There is no defense, emotional or otherwise, of Christianity that is not grounded in Scripture.
So does the book defend Christianity’s emotional sense? It defends a shaky truce between Christianity and acceptable British intellectual culture. But who says British intellectuals have their emotions in order?
A Man is Off-Kilter
I haven’t seen very many Stanley Kubrick movies, though I learned to my surprise a few years ago that he was responsible for one of my favorite childhood action movies, Spartacus. A few weeks ago, I watched his World War I film, Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas (like Spartacus). The film is about a French general who accuses his troops of cowardice after a failed charge. Three soldiers are randomly selected to face a kangaroo court martial with the sentence of death hanging over their heads. Their colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, argues for the defense. So it’s a combination war film and courtroom drama (unlike Spartacus).
Though I haven’t seen many Kubrick films, I have read enough to know about his famous perfectionism. He often shot close to a hundred takes of a scene before he was satisfied. I also knew he was a photographer, so I expected Paths of Glory to be a visual delicatessen. I wasn’t disappointed. The film is beautiful, light and shadow playing off one another in every frame. Kubrick made good use of his locations, too, especially during the court martial and execution scenes, which were both shot at Schloss Schleissheim in Germany near Munich. I was surprised, though, that the cinematography wasn’t more… well, symmetrical, I guess. I noticed this most in the execution scene. Take a look at the screenshots below (thanks, film-grab.com — one of the best places out there for cinematographical references).
Nudge the camera in any of these shots and you’d have a perfectly balanced frame. Especially that first one! Come on, why isn’t the accused in the center centered under the archway? It could be an aesthetic choice. As a photographer, Kubrick probably spent a lot of time looking through a lens. (The last screenshot above is practically balanced in its imbalance.) He may have chosen to frame the film like this for a greater sense of realism. War is messy, so is making movies. The rough-and-readiness of the shots do make you feel like you’re there, witnessing the events unfold. Or it could be that the production schedule was rushed, the crew were harried, and nobody could be bothered to make sure both sides of the building were in the frame. Not likely, given the director’s aforementioned perfectionism.
Thinking about that word, “imbalance,” I wonder if Kubrick is communicating something by intentionally framing the action in this slightly off-kilter way. In the story, high-ranking officers shoot three innocent soldiers rather than own up to their mistakes. The structure of responsibility fails. The world skews. Kubrick may have translated this sense of unreality into the pictures themselves. A balanced frame would imply that justice is being done and all is right with the world. The story insists that all is not right, and what better way to underscore this than through slight imperfections in the way the characters are presented?
A Man Begins His 30th Year
New year, new journal. My last one isn’t actually full yet, but this one was a Christmas gift and deserves to be used. I’ll keep the old around as a commonplace book. (My most recent commonplace? This, from Gary Keller: “In every endeavor, one action counts for more.”)
When I get something new, I try to scuff it, bend it, or write in it as soon as possible. A fledgling habit for me, since I have a pen that I was given as a child that I never took out of its box because I didn’t want to “ruin it.” Use it up is my new motto. Pack dirt around it and let it grow. The haphazard drawings above are my attempt to plant this journal ASAP.
I’ve been dreading this year for I don’t know how long. 2019, the thirtieth since I was born. Somehow I got the idea that if I hadn’t directed a feature film and written a best-selling novel by the time I was thirty, I’d never do either. Rationally, I no longer believe that. But subconsciously, it’s pretty good motivation for getting to work. My new journal will be the atlas of my descent into the land of doubt and discovery that lies ahead. Even if it doesn’t result in a film or a novel, I’m sure this year will be be a year of change for the better. May my old ways die.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
A Man is Playing a Role
Ian Marcus Corbin writes in the Weekly Standard about the bizarre disjunction between how courteously his colleagues interact with those with different political or cultural views in real life and how nastily they attack them on social media. Some people are born with certain advantages, Corbin admits, and some people are unfairly treated based on how they look, dress or act. And yet…
It is possible to acknowledge all of this, however, and still be struck by the wild imbalance between our lived experience of one another and the verbal portrait of ourselves that we daily paint on social media. Perhaps I’m not treated like a ravening predator in my personal relationships because I’m “one of the good ones” in my identity category. Fine. Many chauvinistic group-ideologies are willing to make exceptions for exceptional individuals. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here; I don’t think that I get a special pass and all of the other white men in my acquaintances’ path are treated like monsters. Rather, for many of us, our public, impersonal lives contain a much higher percentage of status-seeking performance than our day-to-day interactions. We’re playing roles.
Last semester, I taught a class on television and culture (and again this upcoming semester). The sentence I bolded at the end of that quote strikes me as particularly relevant to that topic. One consequence of living so much of your life in front of a TV screen is that you start to believe that TV is reality and that your life is a shoddy illusion. Its in TV’s best interests to keep you watching, and the way to do that is to beat into your skull the fact that television is where life’s meaning truly lies. In his essay on TV, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes it like this:
The modes of presentation that work best for TV—stuff like “action,” with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the “hysteria” of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter—are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more… well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it. This might seem benign until we consider that what average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television-watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).
If anything has changed since Wallace wrote that essay, we’ve become more involved in these “modes of presentation.” Now, we don’t join in only in our minds, but in our actual lives. We are all living “presented” lives. We’re all playing roles.
What a Man Saw in 2019, Pt. 1