Saturday afternoon found me squatting in my bathtub with a digital camera, distorting my spine and kicking up my sciatica.
My wife Kerry was on the toilet, Kaden was at the sink, and a hazardously thin girl named Jamie was struggling to reach in with a make-shift boom pole. This is the cast and crew of our short film, “Smasheroo.”
I chose this script among the fifty offerings that make up the 50 Kisses Competition because (like any script I work from) it spoke to me. It was clear that its writer, James Howard, knew these characters. They were based on him and his wife, a snapshot of her recovery following a head injury that left her with a speech dysfunction called aphasia. While I also selected a couple other scripts to direct because they were fun or posed challenges, Mr. Howard’s script resonated with me emotionally. My own father has suffered from a similar condition as he has advanced into his 80s.
The author and I corresponded via email. He was ecstatic to have his script produced and had plenty of ideas to share, ideas cut from the script due to the competition’s two-page requirement. We agreed on several changes, and a revised script was drawn up.
As a filmmaker, I have only two aspirations. One, to connect with my audience. Two, to do the script justice. The purpose of every shot I select, every edit, every direction I give to an actor is to bring the writer’s words to life while being true to his or her intent. So it is vital that I can collaborate with any writer, and that he or she will be agreeable to providing changes I believe will help make their voice heard. After all, the script is a blueprint. It isn’t the writer’s job to understand the mechanics of how the words will connect with the viewing public; that’s the function of the filmmaker. As such, the filmmaker often must partner with the writer to reshape the script in order to bridge this divide, to make the intent palpable and words meaningful.
I had two inspirations in my approach to “Smasheroo.” First, stylistically, was Julian Schnabel’s small miracle of a film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Second I drew upon the wisdom of John Cassavetes, who knew when it was time to step back and let the actors work their magic. The sensibilities of these two directors probably figured most prominently in my mind as I set out to make this short.
The film is divided into two segments by a flashback. Pre-flashback footage was captured with an 85mm lens using tight framing, each actor seen solo or with a little of the other actor blocking out the frame. At one point Kaden’s face is obscured completely by Kerry’s arm. The point is, he’s feeling stifled by her condition, a little resentful, exhausted, trapped. Following the flashback I went with a 50mm lens and placed both actors in the same frames, to unify the relationship and bring about a sense of understanding.
While many filmmakers are moving to ever more advanced machinery to acquire their images, I realized the flashback needed the opposite approach. Super 8mm film was used to provide an organic quality that is lacking in digital. It just felt right. Kerry’s character is suddenly revealed in good health, and the contrast, enhanced by the primitive film stock, is startling.
My two actors were amazing. Kaden at first gave me a tearful rendition, which must have been hard for him, but for me felt incongruent with his character. Withholding the tears created a tension that wouldn’t have been there had he let everything out. In the following takes he stayed stoic but on the verge of tears, and this was far more touching. Kerry’s performance was spot on every time. All I had to do was turn the camera on and keep her in focus.
I am fortunate to work with a great composer, Michael Daniel, who gave the short film exactly the music needed to pull heartstrings. The rest of the post-production was left to my own devices.
To my surprise, organizer Chris Jones emailed us soon after I uploaded the film, to inform us it had touched him and he wanted to present it during his keynote address at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. We were overwhelmed with joy, particularly after learning the great David Yates would be taking the stage immediately afterwards.
However, before the film would be presentable, some edits needed to be made. My concern was if too much were to be taken out, the emotional punch could be weakened. Chris however gave suggestions which kept the piece moving along without sacrificing kick. We sent the short back and forth, making changes over the course of a week, until both parties agreed it was much better.
I would offer a couple bits of advice to filmmakers. First, always look for the truth in everything you do. That may mean how you compose a shot, or the direction you give your actors, or the way you light the room. Does the decision you have made ring true? Because if not, the audience will feel it, and your film will suffer. I’d also advise any filmmaker to do as much of the work themselves as possible. Dispense with the crew and learn how to storyboard, revise the script, shoot, light, record audio, edit footage, mix audio and promote the product. Dive in there. Drive yourself crazy. Get your hands dirty. The result may flop, but there’s no better way to learn.