A few weeks ago Chevy Chase came to Flashpoint to talk to our students and I didn't have the time to blog about his appearance, but he has been on my mind so better late than never.
I want to begin by saying that until meeting him, I didn't really think anything about Chevy Chase. I liked him on SNL 30+ years ago and a few of his movie appearances, but that was about it. However, after meeting him and seeing him talk I have become a fan. The following are some of my highlights of his hour speaking to students. First off he was very funny almost the entire time. It is clear he just is funny.
1) Collaboration. Almost the first thing out of his mouth. He talked about how important it is in the arts to work and collaborate with others. As faculty we preach that all the time, but somehow I think coming from a star it will have more impact.
2) The importance of writing. He credits his success to being a writer first and a performer second. Again, as faculty we talk about developing students' writing skills. This, too, I hope will sink in.
3) He is really smart. It is clear he is well read and can draw from a wealth of knowledge.
4) His comedic influences. His father, a noted political and social commentator. Chevy told a very funny story about how a few years ago his father cracked up Mike Wallace and others at the US Open tennis matches by referring to the ball boys as an 11 letter epithet that begins with C that years ago got Lenny Bruce arrested. The point being that anarchy and surprise are a big part of his comedic background. He also cited Groucho and Ernie Kovacs (Chevy and I have something in common afterall) as major influences on his career.
5) Schools. He admitted as a young person he had issues and was sent to "nurturing" schools. He wished he had a place- like Flashpoint- that would have allowed him to be himself.
6) In the middle of his talk, sort of out of nowhere, he launched into "Live from New York it's Saturday Night!" When he did I got goose bumps and it surprised me. I had that "Wow, it's really him," moment.
I hope our students got as much out of him as I did. Last week I flipped on the TV and there he was in Christmas Vacation. Not a great film, but I watched for awhile out of my new found respect for Chevy Chase.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
A few weeks ago Chevy Chase came to Flashpoint to talk to our students and I didn't have the time to blog about his appearance, but he has been on my mind so better late than never.
Friday, December 28, 2007
During the late summer just before my friend Dan Devening, an artist, gallery owner and college professor, went to Austria on a fellowship (show-off) he told me about a film he just saw called Helvetica. It's a documentary about the typeface by that name and the revolution it has caused and the reaction to that revolution. Who would have thunk that a documentary about a font could be so interesting, but it was.
A lot of filmmaking is about paying attention to details. In fact almost all good art in some way pays attention to the little things. And perhaps there is no group of artists more into the details than graphic designers. Throughout Helvetica one watches half-crazed designers discuss the greatness of the font, while another group of designers talks about how Helvetica is a curse. One camp thinks fonts should be neutral while the other group says fonts should add something to the text. As a side note my favorite font- until seeing this film- has always been "default."
In addition to the joys of watching passionate artists in a great debate, and learning a lot about how typefaces are created and used, Helvetica is also visually very stunning and has quite a lot of humor in it. (Though it helps if you think it is funny that all the graphics in the film and in the subtitled part of the DVD are also set in Helvetica.) The director, Gary Hustwit, and his crew take great pains to frame all of the interviews and visuals -there is a lot of signage in the film- with great care.
To me Helvetica is an example of just how great the documentary form can be. Here is a film about something few of us care about and all take for granted(at one point Helvetica font is compared to air) yet our attention is riveted. I suggest you check it out.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
This has been the longest the dumb filmmaker has been away fom his blog since he began it. Things have been very busy for him, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and he promises to stop referring to himself in the 3rd person.
A brief recap of the last few weeks:
Singer/Song writer Michelle Shocked came to Flashpoint where she cut a song and shot a music video- coming to your computers soon.
Last week Chevy Chase was at school. That's us with Paula Froehle, our academic dean and Steven Berger Flashpoint's in-house producer. Chevy was great. Very funny and he spoke well about the importance of collaboration and writing.
All of the film students have shot and are no editing their first films. I have seen many of them and I am quite pleased with the outcome.
On the professional front Jim shot one final (he promises, really) sequence for the teen parent film while I was with Chevy Chase- thanks again Jim. And we are racing to the conclusion of this major top-secret (non-disclosure) film we began in October.
By the end of the week things should return to some sort of consistency and blogging can resume in earnest.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
I wrote the blog about August: Osage County, the Broadway play, last night about 10pm. I woke up this morning and opened my New York Times to see this glowing review by Charles Isherwood.
All happy families are alike, Tolstoy told us, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But I’d bet the farm that no family has ever been as unhappy in as many ways — and to such sensationally entertaining effect — as the Westons of “August: Osage County,” the new play by Tracy Letts that blazed open last night at the Imperial Theater.
A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown, “August” is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Fiercely funny and bitingly sad, this turbo-charged tragicomedy — which spans three acts and more than three blissful hours — doesn’t just jump-start the fall theater season, recently stalled when the stagehands went on strike. “August” throws it instantaneously into high gear.
You can read the rest of the review here. I am glad I got to see the show in Chicago.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
A few weeks ago I wrote about the writer's guild strike and how it is affecting people on all ends of the entertainment business pay scale. Until now I haven't mentioned the other big strike- the Broadway stagehand strike that recently was resolved.
There is an interesting piece in the current New Yorker about a woman who is a wig maker for both Phantom of the Opera and Saturday Night Live. She was forced out of a job because of both strikes and has resorted to cutting hair out of her Manhattan apartment bathroom. Since the stage hands have returned to work, I assume she has half of her income back, but it goes to show you how tough it can be for people who aren't rich and famous.
My connection to the Broadway strike is through my friend Sally Murphy (above) a member of Steppenwolf Theater and one of the stars of August: Osage County. The play had it's world premiere in Chicago at Steppenwolf this summer and made the move to Broadway only to get there in time for the strike. August is terrific. It's funny (often very) sad (often very), tragic. The three hours fly by and I hope New York audiences get to see it. A modern day Death of a Salesman, perhaps.
Anyway, I am glad the strike is over and the show is back so Sally and the rest of the cast can return to work. August: Osage County is a play that needs to be seen.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Perhaps the most frustrating thing to me about being a dumb filmmaker is the lack of opportunities I get to practice my craft. I just can't wake up in the morning and announce that today I am going to make film. Like Blanche Dubois, I am dependent on the kindness of strangers (well-paid teamsters, SAG members, and other crew types.) I don't know if I would be a better filmmaker if I had more opportunities, but I certainly would be a different kind of filmmaker. I would really like to explore different visual styles and techniques.
All of this brings me to Chuck Close the photographer and portraitist, one of his self-portraits appears here. For more than thirty years Close has explored different versions of the same form. Typically he takes a photograph of his subject and then creates a grid on a canvas and paints huge portraits from the picture. Over the years his method has remained the same, but his style has changed.
Earlier in his career his portraits were photorealistic. Stunning giant portraits of his subjects that worked on the viewer differently from various distances. By the time you get close to a nine-foot tall face you see it very differently than from across the room. Today his portraits are much more abstract- see above- yet he still works within this same process of taking a photograph and creating a grid. Close's paintings take months to complete but they all start with that 1/100th of a second image which captures his subject and over the years he has returned to the the original photographs to make new portraits. I am envious that he can return to the same source material and create new works of art while exploring new artistic territory.
To me his process has many benefits. Everyday he can work on little pieces of his paintings. Each square of his grid becomes a mini-painting with its own abstract style. He can stop the work and return to it on and off for weeks. Each grid builds positively on itself and over time he has a finished portrait. The key here is belief in the process. Close has created a system which works for him and within that system he is free to change his style.
One final thing about Chuck Close. About 20 years ago he had a major stroke that rendered him paralyzed from the shoulders down. Since then he has done all of this work from a wheel chair with a paint brush strapped to his wrist.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
Last week my friend Dan took me to see The Future is Unwritten, the documentary about Joe Strummer, the man who wrote those words. It’s a really great piece of filmmaking and it helps if you are a fan of the band The Clash and punk rock but there are several things that make it stand out as a film.
The film opens with an amazing image of him recording the vocal track to White Riot. They have taken out all the other musical tracks and all you hear is Strummer screaming the lyrics into a microphone. It is an arresting image and draws you into the film immediately. Slowly the instrumental tracks fade in and White Riot as we know it plays, but until that happens all we see is a mad Brit screaming into a microphone.
There is no narration. The entire Strummer story is told through pictures and interviews with friends and colleagues. Hard to pull off, I have tried, but it really works. This technique drops the viewer into the film and we find our own path rather than have someone lead us.
Many of the interviews are done around a campfire at night. Interesting the first couple of times you see it, then frankly annoying…until near the end of the film when we discover Joe Strummer loved campfires and towards the end of his life he began inviting people over to sit around a campfire. Suddenly this visual style had meaning.
Julien Temple directed. He is best known as a music video director, but clearly the subject had meaning to him- he was friends with the band in the 1970s- and had a lot of his own archived material in the film. The Future is Unwritten is clearly a labor of love. When we saw it at the Music Box Theater it was the only theater in the country screening the film, though it had a successful festival run. If you are a fan of the Clash or just want to see an artist at work see the film.
Joe Strummer died from an undiagnosed heart defect on his couch in December of 2002 shortly after returning from walking his dog. The day before he mailed Christmas cards to his friends, cards he designed and created. They arrived just as those friends were learning about his passing.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
When I learned about the passing of Dick Wilson, TV's Mr. Whipple from the Charmin ads, I cannot say I was overly saddened, but it did make me pause and reflect on some of my wasted youth in front of the television and how TV advertising has changed.
Mr. Whipple, along with Mrs. Olson, the Folger's coffee lady, and Madge the Manicurist for Palmolive dish soap, were staples of TV for two and a half decades. Dick Wilson made 504- that's over 4 hours!- Charmin commercials. Mrs. Olson and Madge also had TV lives that spanned more than a generation. The ads must have been successful because you don't keep going back to the "Ladies, don't squeeze the Charmin," well if the TP ain't moving off the shelves.
Today these ad campaigns wouldn't last more than a TV season and that says as much about how we watch TV as it does about the ads themselves. In the 1970s when Madge had her customers soaking in Palmolive I would have had to get up off the couch and turn the channel to make her go away. Since there were only two other channels I left it on and Madge and the others were begrudgingly allowed to come into our living room. Today with the clicker and the Tivo and downloading episodes from the Internet who watches commercials- especially one's with characters like these three?
The other thing that strikes me about these characters and ad campaigns is the complete lack of irony and sense of humor. In reviewing these spots you can just see comedians like David Letterman waiting to skewer them. In fact an early Letterman memory of mine had him making fun of the Florence Henderson Wesson Oil commercials. Today if a TV spot isn't quick hitting eye candy then it won't last.
So, I am sorry Mr. Whipple, Mrs. Olson and Madge your time has come and gone. I am sure you will live on in You Tube land where people can get there nostalgia and irony in two clicks.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
I guess it should come as no surprise that organized religion is having an influence on the film business. I am not talking about films like Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, but rather the impact from new modern day mega-churches and television ministries.
Over the last 10 years I have had more and more students come to class with film production experience not from their high schools but through their churches. Many churches have youth groups devoted towards filmmaking. Many of those same churches also have expensive cameras, switchers capable of creating a live TV broadcasts, and advanced editing suites.
Who would have thunk it?
I have seen my share of church-produced films and I have yet seen one that made me really take notice. What I have seen is a lot of young people having fun, going on outings and generally making a high end home movie. Not bad really, but like most home movies, of no interest to anyone who isn't part of that family.
So I don't really know what to make of this church based filmmaking. I assume it is a way to get more young people interested in the church. But what is the goal? I don't see it as a training ground for young filmmakers. Is it the modern day equivalent of an ice cream social? "Hey everyone come over to our sanctuary and let's make a movie?"
By contrast a student recently showed me the trailer for a feature film his high school made. And based on the two minute trailer it was really terrific. I could see the student filmmakers learning craft and taking something from it. It was not a home movie. Maybe this is an example of the separation of church and state.
I dunno. More on this topic later.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
This is a picture of my friend Craig walking the WGA picket line in Los Angeles earlier this week. His TV show, Unhitched, for Fox is on hold due to the strike and Craig walked the line in support of the writers.
The day before Criag sent me the photo a former student and teaching assistant of mine who is now in Los Angeles e-mailed me to say she, too, was walking the line in support of the writers. Eliza Hajek is not a celebrity actress but an up and coming editor. She was offered an assistant editor position on Grey's Anatomy, but the show and job is on hold due to the strike.
I think these two stories really highlight some of the overlooked issues of the strike. While Craig is a successful actor who has money in the bank (though I am pretty sure he still owes me $50 from 20 years ago) and can ride out a strike, Eliza and her brethren are a few pay grades lower and while not living paycheck to paycheck, still need to pay the bills. I am glad to see them both on the line putting a different face on the battle between the writers and producers. And for everyone's sake I hope the strike ends soon.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Yesterday's post about Peter Morgan and his films The Deal, The Queen and The Last King of Scotland has me thinking about other movies that depict real news events in a dramatic fashion. How someone dramatizes and makes interesting a story that was recently headline news is beyond me. When it is done well I always like it.
Recently I saw A Mighty Heart starring a nearly unrecognizable Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2002 and murdered by members of the Taliban. Jolie is great and honestly I don't know much of her work unless Brangelina is a film I missed. Here is the thing about this film: you know what is going to happen from frame one, yet you are riveted. Go figure. It's part detective story, part documentary, part love story and all terrific.
To me the touchstone of these real life films is All the President's Men. Here is a film that came out not long after Nixon resigned, when the country was Watergated to death, yet the film did huge box office, won Oscars and still holds me in its grip when I watch it.
Both films are about journalists and the slow, often boring process of discovery. Both have excellent performances by big name actors and both are gripping. Even though I know Woodward and Bernstein survived and Nixon would resign I still get spooked when I see Woodward in the garage with Deep Throat.
To me what makes All the President's Men work is the quality of filmmaking. Alan Pakula, the director, brought all of the elements together- great source material, an excellent script, top notch actors and great Gordon Willis visuals. It is a defining moment of translating a real story to the screen.
Monday, November 12, 2007
I saw the British Film The Deal the other day. The film depicts the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the Thatcher and Major eras of British politics. It was written by Peter Morgan (pictured here) who also wrote The Queen, The Last King of Scotland - about Idi Amin- and the play Frost/Nixon- which is being adapted into a film as well.
What interests me about Morgan is how he mines real events and real characters to create his drama. In a profile in the New Yorker a few months ago he said what interests him is not so much history, but "narratives in which real public figures are thrown into unlikely relationships." John Lahr reported, "as a storyteller, Morgan is drawn to volatile, ambiguous antagaonists, " and how ambition interests him "because it's sure fire indicator of damage." I wish my students could de-construct and define their work as well.
Peter Morgan came to screenwriting after a bout of stagefright stalled his acting career and I think he is a good example of how there are many different avenues into the film business. Yet, what impresses me the most about his work is how he is so certain of the types of stories that appeal to him. He has found his milieu and knows how to best mine it. I look forward to seeing his next project.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
I am not done with this internship idea yet so hold on.
Another former MBC intern is my friend Jay Smith. Jay came to the museum as a college senior at Indiana University. At school he was a TV major and had a clear plan on how to get a job in the business. His first step was to get an internship at the museum.
The museum internship was critical to Jay's overall plan because MBC president Brice DuMont was also a correspondent and producer at Chicago's PBS affiliate WTTW. Jay knew that if he got in good with Bruce he would have a better shot at getting one of WTTW's paid internships after graduation the following year.
Sure enough his plan worked. He parlayed his free MBC intenship to a paid internship the next summer. When that internship expired WTTW hired him full time on their flagship news program, Chicago Tonight. 18 years later he is going strong and is now the managing producer of that program. Over these 18 years he has also written and produced many other programs and documentaries for WTTW, but it all started with a vision he had while in college on the steps he needed to take to get the job he wanted.
So, like former intern Dan in my previous post, this too comes full circle. When I got my Flashpoint job I told Jay he needed to do a piece on the school- the first new college in Chicago in 40 years. He said he would when the time was right. The time was right this past Tuesday. Mayor Daley did the official ribbon cutting at Flashpoint and that evening on Chicago Tonight there was a piece on Flashpoint Academy and brief snippet of the dumb filmmaker. A quid pro quo of sorts.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
A few weeks ago I wrote about my internship at a TV station and how valuable it was to my professional development. Today I want to talk about the farther reaching value interns can have.
I have said many times that before my Flashpoint gig I have had only one "real" job and that was from 1987-1989 when I worked for the Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC). At the museum we were lucky enough to have several good interns and many of us remain friends to this day.
Our first intern was Dan Lerner. Hard to believe it now, but he was a senior in high school when we met. Your classic over achiever,Dan was writing for the ACLU newsletter and looking to get his foot in any door when he showed up at the museum. Frankly, I don't remember what he did- he probably watched a lot of old TV and recorded it into our archives. Mostly we talked sports- such great conversations as who would you rather have in centerfield Kirby Puckett or Dale Murphy (years later Dan finally agreed with me about Kirby Puckett.) Dan was a good guy and worked hard and we liked having him around.
The night before he went off to college Mike Mertz, MBC archivist, and I took Dan out on the town and said goodbye. (Out on the town in this case means we grabbed a pizza and went to the batting cages. C'mon the museum only paid me $7.25 and hour and only so much town can be had for that kind of coin.)
Dan and I have remained friends over the years. Today he is a political consultant and filmmaker. I am helping produce his film (four years+ in the making) about rock-a-billy legend Sleepy LaBeef. This weekend Sleepy is performing with lots of other stars at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a concert for Jerry Lee Lewis. Dan will be there, cameras rolling, getting the show and hopefully nabbing interviews with Kris Kristofferson (who saw Sleepy during his college days at Columbia University), Chrissy Hynde and others.
My point with this post is that the benefits of internships work both directions. 20 years ago Dan was a real help to us at the museum and today I get to reciprocate by helping him with his film. Though he has done all the heavy lifting on the film I will get a nice credit and more importantly feel we have come full circle from his days as our intern.
Tomorrow another intern story.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
I often have a problem watching films about addiction and recovery. Even in the best ones there seems to be some sort of artificiality I can not get past. In The Days of Wine and Roses Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick are great, but there comes a point in the film where it gets preachy and we can see the ending coming 45 minutes in advance. Worse, to me, is Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Milland set the standard for the bad drunk, but the D.T. scene is laughable- did they spend any money on that fake bat attack? Yet, the film won Oscars and for years was the touchstone for films about alcoholism.
Films just about addiction are no good. I like Leaving Las Vegas and really appreciate the director Mike Figgis, but I don't need to see Nicolas Cage drink himself to death. I get it already. The typical film is this: I am a junkie, it's fun for a while, it gets out of control, I leave a wake of destruction- physical and emotional- in my path, then I die miserably. In other words see Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, ad. nausea.
Films just about recovery are perhaps worse because we see none of the fun and we get preached at for two hours. These films actually make me want to drink. More. Right there in the theater. Where is the Martini concession? Is there a Pinot Noir vendor anywhere?
Take a pass on Clean and Sober (though I like Michael Keaton) and especially When a Man Loves a Woman a Meg Ryan/Andy Garcia film. A good idea by Al Franken gone bad through a series of unfortunate filmmaking events. (No one knew the film they were trying to make.) A far superior film written by the same Al Franken is Stuart Saves His Family. Franken knows something about alcoholic families and co-dependency and Stuart is a surprisingly nice film.
All of this brings me to two films I saw recently that have a different take on addiction and recovery, but to me were maybe the most valid of all the films. Interestingly they both deal with killers, but in very different ways.
You Kill Me stars the always terrific Ben Kingsley as a hit man for the Buffalo, NY Polish mob who is sent to San Francisco to dry out. In S.F. he gets a job in a funeral home, where he meets Tea Leoni (who also produced the film. I wonder what attracted her to the material?) and goes to A.A. He gets a sponsor and gets his life together. There are several scenes in the A.A. meeting and several more with his sponsor, Luke Wilson. Though it is a dark comedy it touches on issues about addiction and recovery that those other films don't.
The other film is Mr. Brooks starring Kevin Costner and William Hurt. Costner is Mr. Brooks, Portland, Oregon's man of the year and a serial killer. (Where do they come up with these ideas?) He wants to stop killing but his alter ego, William Hurt, won't let him. He goes to A.A. meetings where all he says is that he is an addict and leaves it at that.
The thing that struck me about both these films is the power of the anonymous group and how people could sit and talk or not, but it was clear recovery was a process they were all going through. Very interesting, though a little thin on the fake bat attack scenes.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Years ago a made a film called Victimless Crimes. It was about a pair of art thieves who stole paintings with the theory that no one got hurt. The gallery owner got his insurance money, the artists had already been paid, so why not rip them off. See, a victimless crime. Aren't I clever.
While I enjoy referencing myself and my work, I am bringing it up because of the issues I recently blogged about- file sharing and file stealing. I wouldn't steal a library book or a computer. Why would I steal a computer file? Why would I take something I know has been stolen? Just because the software company, or Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in the case of American Gangster. Aren't physically around as one takes their property does not make it OK.
On one of my first posts I wrote about You Tube and how much I disliked them. The main reason was because of all of the illegal work up there. At the time I mentioned my own work with Denny Dent was available on You Tube because someone had taken a copy and posted it. While they did it as a tribute to Denny, and at first I was flattered, now I am greatly bothered.
fEERtherepEER, the person who posted it, needs to know that what they did was wrong. And while I appreciate the 47,851 views (minus my two viewings) you do not have my permission to use it. It is my work, my property. Stop.
This is not a victimless crime.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Regular readers of this page know my fondness for The Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular. Those readers should also know of my affection (addiction? disease?) for the Boston Red Sox. At school this afternoon I had students congratulating me on the World Series victory as if I was the Red Sox bullpen. I blame my Great Aunt Amy for this Red Sox affliction, but that is another story for another time. Check out the Soxaholix link to the right to see the depths of this condition. However, as this is a blog about film I'll bring it back to Groucho.
As I kid my parents showed me classic old films. Sometimes my dad would bring home a film print of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and we would project it on a wall in our living room. The screenings were infrequent, but wonderful. More often we would watch on TV a Charlie Chan film or some other relic that most readers of this page will have no idea what I am referencing. (Once on TV there used to be something called The Late Show where old movies would be screened. Now there is You Tube- see below.)
To me Groucho is the best. For pure anarchy and zaniness nobody can beat him- a raised eyebrow, an eye roll and a leer can get more laughs than a thousand stand-up comedian monologues. But Groucho hard a dark side. He, like many geniuses, was depressed. He lost a fortune in the 1929 stock market crash, married badly and had more personal failures than one would wish on your worst enemy. And, unlike the rest of us, he didn't have a Groucho Marx in his life to make him laugh. If anyone needed a Groucho it was Groucho.
So for everyone who reads this page and needs to smile here is Groucho as Captain Spaulding almost 80-EIGHTY!- years ago in Animal Crackers.
Now I must be going.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Bob Dylan is in Chicago this weekend and as always he has me thinking about the times we live in.
Not too many years ago if you were a Chicago based filmmaker and didn't have a production office in the 312 area code you were not a player. All of the major production houses, post-production facilities and recording studios were within a few blocks of each other. While many still are there, the film community has expanded and your physical location is nowhere nearly as important. These days an ftp server or secured website is as important as an office. More often than not we post rough cuts and let the client see them when and wherever they want to. This comes in very handy when a handful of people need to screen a cut.
At Flashpoint I am currently teaching a Creative Producing class where we spend a fair amount of class time discussing changes in the industry. Of late the conversation has turned to public art, giving away your work and new modes of distribution. It is very interesting and the students have lots of insights.
A few weeks ago the band Radiohead announced they would release their new record and let people pay whatever they wanted for it. We did a survey in class and the average price our students "paid" for the record was a little over seven dollars- some said they would pay nothing, others more than $20. Interestingly, after they first few hundred thousand downloads, the average price paid for the Radiohead record was just about eight bucks. Our un-scientific survey was pretty accurate.
From Radiohead we jumped to Wes Anderson and his short film The Hotel Chevalier which is a free download on iTunes. They are using it as a marketing tool for The Darjeeling Limited and it seems to be working. We don't have enough public art in this country and it is great that a successful filmmaker is putting his work out there for free.
From Wes Anderson we turn to Ed Burns, the actor and director whose film Purple Violets will be released not in theaters or on DVD but directly to iTunes. This will be the first film released on to iTunes and I believe it is a harbinger of things to come. Purple Violets was made for $4 million and received good reviews when it premiered earlier this year at the Tribecca Film Festival, yet it didn't get any great distribution offers so they decided to go straight to a digital release. The p.r. alone has probably helped recoup the investment.
Finally, we come to American Gangster the new Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Ridley Scott film. American Gangster opens in theaters next Friday, yet at least half of my students have it already on their computers thanks (no thanks?) to someone posting a screener copy. I looked at some of the film and it is a great copy and as of yesterday I heard that it had been viewed on-line at least 30,000 times. That's a lot of people not paying for American Gangster movie tickets or DVD rentals.
For the record I am completely against stealing works of art (or works of Crowe). But as I talked with my students they said, "Our generation takes it for granted that our work will be copied, shared and stolen." (BTW, thanks for making me feel old and categorizing me into that generation.) I don't like that but they thought nothing of passing a flash drive around the room and getting their own copies of American Gangster. It will be interesting to see how they feel in a few years when someone is stealing their works.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Monday, October 22, 2007
That Was The Week That Was was first broadcast in Britain in the early 196os and gave David Frost his first wide television exposure. A short time later an American version appeared giving TV audiences their first real glimpses of performers like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Woody Allen, Alan Alda and Buck Henry. Both shows were satirical looks at the week's news, a precursor if you will to The Daily Show. I bring this up because last week at Flashpoint was both very typical and oh so atypical. Let me explain.
On Saturday the 13th the actor Jeffrey Wright and rapper/actor Mos Def came to school as part of The Chicago International Film Festival. Sometime around 10pm there was Mos Def pounding on the drums in one of our recording studios.
Tuesday, representatives from Morocco and the Chicago Sister Cities program came to school to explore cultural exchange opportunities. And that evening about 1/3 of our students went to a screening of The Darjeeling Limited where writer and director Wes Anderson and co-writer and star Jason Schwartzman answered our questions.
On Friday Mesh Flinders, creator of the Internet phenomenon Lonely Girl 15, was on campus speaking with students and high school counselors and administrators. Friday afternoon the first ever Flashpoint Academy Machinima Challenge took place. We divided students into eight groups and using the Team Fortress 2 game engine, created eight short films in the span of five hours. At 5pm we had a screening and later this week those films will be posted on the web.
All of this happened under the lens of Channel 11 (the local PBS affiliate) who came to do a piece on us for their program Chicago Tonight.
On Saturday Flashpoint had an open house and 180 perspective students and their parents attended looking to enroll in January or next fall.
On Sunday (some of us) rested.
That Was The Week That Was.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Al Gore, than man who should be president, owns the Best Feature Length Documentary Oscar for producing and appearing in An Inconvenient Truth, and last Friday he was named a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the environment.
I didn't really care for An Inconvenient Truth. While the message is an important one, as a film I feel it fell short- to much of Al on the phone or working on his Mac. I would have preferred to see his presentation in person rather than the film. Of course I believe what he was saying so he was preaching to the converted.
I do think often about all the petroleum products used in film manufacturing and production and all the chemicals that process and develop film. Where does it go? Out of sight out of mind? For environmental reasons I am glad we are moving towards a filmless/tapeless work flow, but I can also imagine a pile of batteries and computer chips and flash drives at the bottom of a land fill. I am one of the few people who are happy that I have to turn in my iphone to get a new battery. Apple is doing the green thing, I think, but of course I drive a hybrid and eat granola- actually as I type these words- so I naturally lean that way.
This summer one could travel the Northwest Passage by boat for the first time in years. Polar Bears are dying because their environment is melting away. Polar ice caps are shrinking at an alarming rate. I am happy for Al Gore, but I really hope the planet heeds his warnings before it is too late.
Friday, October 12, 2007
When I was in high school I was given the chance to be an intern (a nice word for free labor) on the production of a United Cerebral Palsy Telethon. The broadcast was produced by Allen Hall, the producer for 25 years of Bozo's Circus on WGN-TV. I only got the job because my dad met Al Hall at a cocktail party and quick to get his kid out of the house Dad volunteered me. (At this same cocktail party my dad had his picture taken with Cesar Romero and it made all the papers. I still have no idea what Dad and The Joker were doing together, but there they are forever together in print.)
I went to the studio that evening not really knowing what to expect. I had no skills or experience. I didn't know anyone, BUT I was smart enough to keep my eyes open and see what I could do. For the most part I ushered clowns- Bozo, Cookie, Whizzo- back and forth between the green room and the set and took messages and food between the control room and Al at the front of the stage.
As happens in 24-hour telethons there is a lot of downtime and that is when this internship really paid off. I was just starting to think about colleges and asked Al where he thought a young guy like me should go- Syracuse, Northwestern and Boston University, I still remember his answer. I also spent a lot of time with Jose (Joe) Cornejo who was the associate producer and was a regular member of WGN's Cub broadcast team. I asked him where he went to college and he said, "Hard Knocks."
Thinking he said Knox College I said, "In Galesburg?"
He laughed and said, "No, the school of hard knocks."
I still didn't get it, then finally it dawned on me. "You didn't go to college!" I asked as if he had two heads. Nope, and lesson learned.
I must have done something right that night because Al Hall gave me his business card (the first one I ever received) and invited me out to the station. A couple of years later he gave me a letter of recommendation for college and a year after that recommended me for an internship at an NBC affiliate. Joe Cornejo invited me to the ballpark to watch a Cubs broadcast from the booth.
This one night of experience quickly went to the top of the work experience portion of my resume- pushing aside Soda Jerk, Paper Boy and Camp Counselor. Getting in the door was the first step, but knowing how to act professionally once there was the key. Had I been bored, inattentive, less curious or fallen asleep- all very real possibilities when working all night- I would have missed out on the chance that really helped define and shape my career.
The moral of the story is obvious (it's not become drinking buddies with Cesar Romero) take every opportunity you get and make the most of it when you can.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
I am often asked about how I can juggle being a full-time teacher and a full-time filmmaker. Honestly, I don't give it much thought, it is just something I do and have done for a long time. Ten years ago I did all that and went to graduate school at the same time and not only survived, but was the better for it.
Multi-tasking is something I am hardwired to do. Much to my mom's displeasure (though I really think she likes getting my dad out of the house) my dad can't sit still. He is busier in "retirement" than when he worked.
To me the real key is collaboration. If you work with a bunch of trusted, good people then executing the work and time management is easy. And come on it is the film business after all. It's not as if I am juggling being a member of the bomb squad and a transplant surgeon.
Of course the main reason for doing this is that being an active filmmaker makes me a better teacher, and teaching makes me a better filmmaker. Besides, what else would I do?
Sunday, October 7, 2007
I tell students often that the hardest part of being a filmmaker is getting the job. Once you get the job you just do what you have been training to do and the work should be easy. But that's not really true, the REAL hardest part of the job is dealing with the client.
Out favorite clients are the ones that say, "Jim, Peter we want you to go to London to shoot a couple of days and then take a day or two for yourselves." This actually has happened, and when it did, I immediately hit the phone and got us a reservation at The River Cafe- our favorite restaurant.
Unfortunately for the dumb filmmaker and his business partner this is a rare occurrence. More commonly we get a agency producer or client who likes to micro-manage. On more than one occasion- see my Cozmic Crunch post- we have had to handhold someone through the process and make a ton of changes only to come back to our original vision.
It is a paradox I never seem to get my head around. We've been hired because the client has seen our work and liked it, spoken with us, agreed to a budget, and then instead of letting us do that work they get all super hands on and controlling.
I don't get it.
When I go to a restaurant I do not barge into the kitchen and ask the chef why he is braising the osso bucco like that. I choose the dish and it is delivered to me. Then, if I have questions I ask. (A little more lemon zest perhaps, but I am finicky.) Yet, in this business you find this all too frequently.
I was recently telling a friend about a project and said we padded a budget because instinctively we knew the client was going to need managing. They will spend more money because we will have to spend time massaging the client, rather than being filmmakers. I think it goes both ways: if the client is a micro-manager then we will need to manage them more. You get what you pay for but please try to stay out of our kitchen. If you need more lemon zest, we'll deliver
Posted by PeterH at 6:22 PM
Friday, October 5, 2007
With apologies to Ernie Banks, Jim and I played a doubleheader today.
At 7:00 this morning we shot one of our Teen Parents as she spoke to a group of high school students about the choices she made and how it has impacted her life. It is, I think, (Have I said this before?) the last scene we will shoot for this Teen Parent film and it was a nice finishing piece of the puzzle. This young woman comes full circle so to speak.
We wrapped that job at 8:30 and drove into the city to start the second gig. We have signed confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements so all I can say is that over the next month we and a team of cameramen are shooting locations all over Chicago. When it becomes public I can reveal more. I can add this: tomorrow we shoot across the city, ending at Wrigley Field as the Cubs/Arizona playoff game begins.
Between the two jobs we also made an equipment change. The Teen Parent film is shot in standard definition, the new job is on HD. The two experiences could not be more different- both in subject matter and technology and brain function for the dumb filmmaker.
Strange as it seems it is not the first time we have played two. A few years ago we were in Seattle shooting at Safeco Field (maybe it's a baseball stadium thing that ties two jobs together) when we got a phone call asking if we could shoot something at the offices of that really big coffee merchant based out of Seattle- again non-disclosure prevents me saying more, but there is a half-caf, dry, grande, latte in it for you if you can figure it out. Anyway, we wrapped at Safeco at lunch, ate and started job number two. It was a nice way to pocket travel and per diem and do our client a big favor and give them something they ordinarily would not have paid for.
Being double booked has its advantages, but it sure makes me tired. The dumb filmmaker can only keep so many plates spinning at once.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Today is my sister's birthday. And in lieu of giving her anything tangible for her birthday, (cheapskate, busy) I am going to post a piece I originally wrote for Book Magazine in 2002. In the magazine they gave us the last page and it was illustrated by a drawing of Mary Beth's and one of her journal entries which, as always, begins, "Toady, I..."
Happy Birthday Mary Beth. You are catching up to me.
During the summer of 1972, while my mother was pregnant, my parents and I read The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine together. My father had read the book with his family thirty years earlier. Written in 1896 by Franck Stockton, it details the humorous adventures of two plainspoken, determined women who, along with their companion and narrator Mr. Craig, begin a trip from San Francisco to Japan with great expectations, only to become shipwrecked on a desert island. Ultimately their adventure turns into a better trip than the one they had intended to take.
That summer, we too had great hopes and expectations. I was nearly nine years old and convinced the kid would play second base next to my shortstop, turning the pivot on the Hawley to Hawley to Yastrzemski double play. My parents, teachers and great readers of mysteries, no doubt imagined a future doctor or lawyer or Ellery Queen. On October 4 my sister was born, and it soon became clear that she would not be any of those things. A doctor diagnosed her as retarded and suggested institutionalization.
As it turned out, Mary Beth was not institutionalized, but she would never become a doctor or lawyer or a second baseman, either. Still, like the rest of our family, she has always loved to read. She is about to turn thirty, and while not a strong reader, she is an avid one. She cozies up to the Sweet Valley Jr. High series and loves listening to the Harry Potter books on tape. And she relates to the Madeleine books because she, like Madeleine, was always dodging trouble.
Each summer when we were young, we would take our Pinto station wagon on road trips to and from Massachusetts. My sister and I would share the backseat. The trips were filled with lots of yelling and screaming, and one of my jobs was to keep my sister occupied. The best way to do it was by reading picture books to her. Curious George, Dr. Seuss -- anything with a rhyme and colorful pictures did the trick. When I was thirteen, my sister wandered off during a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame. My dad, frantic, paid ten bucks for some kid’s bike and tore across Cooperstown, New York, looking for her. She reappeared an hour later, calmly holding hands with the person who found her. Years later in Paris with my parents, Mary Beth refused to leave until she saw the hospital where Madeleine had her appendix removed.
Last Thanksgiving we visited our parents in Florida. Mary Beth, as is her habit, brought three library books with her. She pitched a fit when she realized the books would be due before she returned home, and she didn’t want to pay the forty-five--cent fine. We gave her two quarters, but she wouldn’t budge. So the day after Thanksgiving, we all marched to the post office and mailed the books back to the library. It cost us $3.95, but she was happy that the books were returned on time.
Like the characters in The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, my parents and I have adapted to our adventure, and while our journey has not been the one we expected to take, it has been, perhaps, better. We do not take for granted moments such as seeing Mary Beth race across the finish line at the Special Olympics, winning yet another gold medal, or the day she moved into her own apartment in Davenport, Iowa where she works for the Handicapped Development Center assisting physically disabled clients. And though I am an egghead college teacher, I think she might have a greater appreciation for the written word. She is the only one in the family who keeps a daily journal.
I have given up on the hope of playing for the Red Sox, and I know Mary Beth and I will never have deep conversations about Fagin or the Cheshire Cat, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to read her. The other day as she worked her way through another Sweet Valley Jr. High book, I sat wonderingwhere those words were taking her. So, I asked Mary Beth why she liked to read, and she looked at me and gave the same answer anybody would, "It’s fun," she said. "And I like the stories."
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
If you can just get your mind together
then come across to me.
We'll hold hands and then we'll watch the sun rise from the bottom of
Are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well I have.
-- Jimi Hendrix
Towards the end of the first class I ever taught a student commented on what we had been doing for the last 15 weeks and said that it was pretty cool. And I flippantly responded, "Yes, that's The Peter Hawley Experience." Of course I was just playing off of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and how was I to know he had know idea what I was referencing.
Anyway, a few days later other students were saying they were glad they had the Peter Hawley Experience. I thought they were joking, maybe even making fun of me, but no. Soon it caught on and I was even calling my own classes "the Peter Hawley experience (lower case of course.) But it stuck and even as recently as a week ago I heard from a former student who said they were glad to have the "experience."
That word- experience- is funny. It says a lot. It is active not passive. A while ago we were sitting around a faculty meeting and my colleague John Murray commented on how much he hated using the word "exercise" when giving assignments. He added that it always made him want to pull on sweat pants an do push ups- not the image you want to give to students. (Push ups, not John in sweats, a striking figure.)
I couldn't agree more and since then we have made a conscious choice to call all of our in class work- experiences rather than exercises. So my screenwriting students now have the experience of writing and presenting a logline and a pitch rather than the "exercise" of writing one.
This in short is part of what makes up The Peter Hawley Experience. I am so glad I didn't reference another song on Are You Experienced, or all my students would be suffering from "Manic Depression touching their soul."
Saturday, September 29, 2007
I was struck dumb the other day (an easy pose for me) when I saw the release of the special 40th Anniversary edition DVD of The Graduate. I have seen The Graduate maybe 20 times, maybe more. It's one of my favorite films because every time I view it I see something else.
I saw it first when I was about to graduate from high school and I think I identified with Ben in many ways- just being a little confused and wondering what there was in this life, all these adults coming at you with suggestions. I don't know what, as Mrs. Robinson says to him.
The next time I saw it was during my freshman year in Boston at a screening on the Harvard campus. Students were laughing. Laughing! How dare they ruin my film by laughing. Then I realized it was also a comedy and really appreciated the humor in the film. On other viewings I enjoyed it for the images- they way they flowed and the montages of Ben and Mrs. Robinson both before and after he tells Elaine of the affair.
I like any film you can deconstruct from multiple perspectives (for kicks look at Casablanca as a musical, then again as a comedy). One could write a thesis on The Graduate as a musical. Everyone remembers the Simon and Garfunkel music but often overlooked is Dave Grusin's great score and incidental music.
One of the last times I saw the film was just after 9-11 and I was struck by how unaffected Ben and Elaine are by the Vietnam War and the Summer of Love. Nowhere in the film- with the possible exception of Norman Fell asking Ben if he is an "agitator"- is there a reference to hippies and the war. Ben follows Elaine to Berkeley for christsakes. I am almost certain there were protests against the war then and someone on campus had a copy of Sgt. Pepper's or The Doors first record or Are You Experienced. The lack of contemporary cultural references is the one strike against The Graduate.
I care about the film so much my friend Craig tells me that on my tombstone (OK I want to be cremated, but that's another story) it will say, "Here lies PeterH. He didn't get to make The Graduate."
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The first semester I was a college teacher I began receiving treatments for films that went a little like this:
Two hit men, one black and one white, in black suits travel around the city.
A man with a band aid on the back of his neck opens a briefcase and a light glows on his face.
A woman overdoses on heroin and a man brings her back to life with a needle of adrenaline to the heart.
That spring vacation I finally had some time off and caught up on some movies. So I am in the theater and John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson hit the screen and I'm thinking this is familiar. Then Uma Thurman gets a shot of adrenaline and I start getting annoyed. Finally when a band-aided Ving Rhames opened a briefcase and a light shines on his face, I swore out loud, mid-movie, "Those sons of bitches!"
When class resumed after the break I read them the riot act and tried to introduce the idea of original thought to the class. Since then I have been on the lookout for the popular student film. The following is a brief list of films important to my students and what they tried to do with it.
1) Fight Club. For a while every student film had to be green and film students started throwing around the processing phrase "bleach bypass."
2) The Usual Suspects. Student films are often confusing on their own. When they intentionally try to be confusing watch out.
3) Being John Malkovich. Not the plot so much but how many times can you use the half-floor trick.
4) Trainspotting. There was about a three semester stretch where every student film had to have strung out heroin addicts and music by Iggy Pop.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
There is something really comforting in that old stand by, the classic film. It's that film you have seen a half dozen times at least, or you flip on the TV and there it is and you sit down and watch it even though you have things to do, and before you know it the dishes aren't done and it's past your bedtime.
A bunch of films come to mind- just about anything by Billy Wilder- Sunset Boulevard, or any of his Matthau/Lemon films. Thinking of Walter Matthau takes my mind to Charade, where he is a good bad guy, and Charade lands me on both Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Who is the modern day equivalent of Hepburn and Grant? Julia Roberts and George Clooney? Even as I type those names I think, wha? As they say, they don't make them like that any more.
When I was making Victimless Crimes we worked six-day weeks, except for two days when we transitioned from shooting during the day to three weeks of night shooting. I had a serious head cold and settled down with a bowl of matzo ball soup and flipped on the TV. I had been trying to avoid films because I didn't want to "accidently, " borrow any ideas, but I was tired and had a cold and North by Northwest was just starting so I couldn't help myself. I watched it for probably the 10th time and when we came to the cornfield scene I sat up and noticed, really for the first time, how Hitchcock (will I ever be known as a director by just my last name?) put together the sequence.
I took stumbling on NxNW as a sign from the film Gods, so I began redesigning shots for the next scene we were going to shoot. There are no crop dusters in Victimless Crimes, but I can tell you exactly what shots were influenced by watching a classic film.
And my cold went away. Never deny yourself the chance to re-see a classic film.
Posted by PeterH at 6:29 AM
Saturday, September 22, 2007
I like to joke that as a teacher I make it up as I go along. All that preparation- who needs it? If I wanted to do homework I would be a student not a teacher. I am mostly joking, but as in any joke there is a little truth to it. I prefer to think of it as being in the moment and open to the flow of the class. Like jazz musicians playing live, there is a general plan and I work within it, yet still go off on solos and come back for the big finish. It works for me, I think.
Currently I am team-teaching (a first for me) with Perry Harovas, the head of the Visual FX department, and it has been a blast. Co-teaching allows me to be both leader and observer- and I have Perry teach all the hard stuff while I sit back and watch. The class is a micro-class of four sessions geared towards opening students up to the building blocks of storytelling. Informally, I call it the attention to details class.
On Thursday I started the class and these were my only notes:
Recap- Why are we doing this?
Hustle and Flow
Sendak- Shape of Music- process
I didn't even get to Hustle and Flow- that will be saved for a later day- but those brief notes lead us into a really great 90-minute session. Briefly, for those without a syllabus, our students had read an essay by Maurice Sendak about seeing colors in music. This lead me to ask students about their own creative process. Surprise! they seemed to discover they do in fact have a process, they just hadn't called it that yet. From there we went to a brief essay by Frank Zappa about framing (placing in context) one's art.
Earlier in the day I asked Perry what he thought about me bringing my guitar to class and seeing what the students "saw" as I played. I played a minor chord- students saw generally dark, moody images- followed by a major chord- and suddenly everyone was happy. I then passed the guitar to a student who played a nice little riff using both major and minor chords. It was great- we are about to create the Flashpoint school song. All of this lead us into screening the Sorcerer's Apprentice section of Fantasia and a lively discussion about the interplay of sound and image.
We think it worked well, but only time will tell.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
We made it.
Flashpoint Academy opened its doors on Monday and welcomed their first class. Monday was orientation and as part of it we screened Dean Paula Froehle's film, "The Collector," and our "making of The Collector" documentary.
The similarities between making a film and building a college are remarkable. During the summer pre-production phase each of us on the Flashpoint crew had a job to do. Recruiters recruited, IT experts did their magic and faculty hammered out classes, curricula and schedules. All of us worked towards the first day of production both independently and as one- just like a film production- coming together to produce a college.
Speaking of filmmaking and collaboration I owe a big thanks to my Windy Cine partner Jim who really figured out the HD workflow and did lots of post-production work as I phoned and e-mailed changes. The making of really works and it proves even a relatively small documentary needs to have good teamwork in order to be successful. Thanks, Jim.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
There was an interesting editorial in Friday's New York Times about how the University of California-Irvine botched the hiring of the dean of their new law school scheduled to open in 2009.
This was fascinating to me in many ways. 1) Planning a school 2+ years away? Come on we built Flashpoint in a little more than 100 days! It can be done. 2) What does it say to the future professors and students at that school that the boss doesn't have the integrity to stand by his own decisions. (The dean was offered the position, it was rescinded due to the deans left of center politics, then the position was re-offered.) Not a good start for the future law school if you ask me.
This brings me to our little school that does things the right way. Yesterday, the staff and faculty had a final walk through before the doors open tomorrow and we go live. When I walked into that building in April it was cement and plywood and studs on the wall. Today it looks like the nerve center of a high-tech business. It is -in a word I seldom use- awesome. It is clearly a place to do good work and make things happen.
As we walked through the halls Steven Berger, Flashpoint Special Projects Manager, came up to me and said, "This is going to be the best and most sought after film school in the country." I replied, "Unless the dumb filmmaker gets in the way."
Paula Froehle, our Academic Dean, heard this and reminded me that I was the first person she thought of when thinking about creating the film program. That made me feel very good. I think we did the right thing.
Tomorrow it's for real.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
"Old Man look at my life, I am a lot like you were."
I heard that Neil Young song recently and those lyrics really hit home.
40 some years ago my dad and mom packed up their relatively comfortable New England lives and left their families behind to move to Kentucky (From Boston to KY even today that sounds crazy!) so my dad could help start a progressive private school called The Lexington School. A dozen years later my dad moved across town to rival Sayre School and helped shape that school. Today those are the two best schools in the state of Kentucky.
So here I am, nearly 12 years into teaching at one of the largest and best films schools in the United States and I up and leave its relative safety to move uptown and to join a progressive upstart. In a day I went from the biggest film school in the world to the smallest. One of my parent's friends even asked if I should wait to take the job until Flashpoint became established.
What am I, nuts?
If I heard Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand" would it be different? Probably not. I think it is in my blood to challenge students and challenge myself and to look at new ways to present material. In short, old man take a look at my life I am a lot like you.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Prior to Flashpoint the only previous experience I have with a start up venture was 20 years ago when I worked for the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Even then I was just a first generation hire, starting right around the day the museum opened the doors so I missed out on all the pre-launch chaos, business and excitement.
Comparing a museum devoted to archiving broadcast history to starting a new media arts college is an apt metaphor for my own experience, I think. I often say at Columbia I was teaching film history- the past and techniques of how things used to be done. Here at Flashpoint I am on the cutting edge. Not only am I on the cutting edge, I think I am actually one of the whetstones doing the sharpening.
It's heady stuff and something I don't take lightly.
Later this week we are going to shift our work space from a satellite office to the main campus in downtown Chicago. When we leave this office- and the Post It notes on the wall and the bad lighting and the spotty internet, and the iffy food place downstairs- I am going to be a little sad. Much like the astronauts of Apollo 13 who saw the LEM as their life raft, I see our temporary office as the mother ship where all the ideas we will execute over the next couple of years took seed. Soon we will jettison the space and gravity will bring us back to earth and the real world.
As comparisons go I think the opening of Flashpoint Academy, the first new college in Chicago in 4o years, is more like the release of a hot new product. Think of Flashpoint as an iphone or the release of the hot new video game or the Super Bowl or a new CD by your favorite musician. We are like that.
Ready or not here we come.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Who would have thought that the most valuable tool in building a college curriculum would be Post It Notes?
In the Flashpoint office we have a wall, much like this one, full of two-foot square month by month calendars going from September -May. On each of those calendars are Post Its with perspective classes written on them. We need a tangible and visual reference for our academic calendar so we decided on little sticky squares of paper. We spent the better part of June and early July putting classes up on that wall. When we finally locked in on a schedule we transferred the information from the wall to Excel programs and then passed that info on to Flashpoint registrar Brad Bergeron. At that point Brad did his registrarial magic and Viola! students and faculty had a schedule for the year.
In addition to Post Its the other thing that really surprises me about this college building experience is how much time we have spent with the registrar. Everything we do in terms of class schedules and credit hours must get approved by Brad. At Columbia I didn't even know then name of the registrar. At Flashpoint he is ever present.
Here is a typical early July day. I am at my computer and Brad quietly walks over to me and says, "Excuse me Peter but you seem to have made a little mistake."
"Huh?" the dumb filmmaker replies.
"Yes, you have 37 screenwriting sections scheduled for group A and only 3 for group B, you know they have to be equal."
As much as I want to say a la Samuel L. Jackson, "Check out the big brain on Brad!" I say, "Sorry, I'll fix it," and slouch back over to the wall of Post Its.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
On Wednesday this past week Howard Tullman, President and CEO of Flashpoint Academy, cuffed me on the back of the head. Yesterday, as we were waiting for people to arrive at a Flashpoint open house, founder and chairman Ric Landry slapped me on the forehead. Now if Paula Froehle, academic dean, slaps me across the face (inevitable) I will have hit the Flashpoint Academy beating trifecta. In all seriousness I take these whuppins' as signs of endearment (if not I have a pretty good law suit on my hands, I think).
We are a week away from opening the doors to the first class and all is terrific. The building at 28 N. Clark Street is state of the art and for the first time in my teaching career I feel I have all the tools and resources necessary to be the best teacher I can be. In all modesty and honesty I believe Flashpoint is going to be a big success and I take great pride in helping to get it off the ground.
More on Flashpoint developments as the week progresses but for now I need to work on my bobbing and weaving and keeping my left up.
Saturday, September 8, 2007
Flaubert's Sentimental Education (that's him to the left) is a ironic and pessimistic novel, but what would you expect from the man who wrote Madame Bovary. I would like to think I am not that dark (I am an Optimist's son after all) but there are certainly some aspects of schooling that drive me mad.
As a teacher I think I draw on all the formal learning from my youth and distill it somehow into my own approach to teaching. I would like to believe I take the best of how I was taught and leave the rest behind. The following are some general things one would find in my classes. It is up to you to decide how Draconian I am.
Attendance- Come to my class. Columbia and now Flashpoint have these serious attendance polices- X number of absences means a drop of a letter grade, more means an automatic F, 15 minutes late is half an absence. (Fourteen minutes late is OK I guess?) I don't get it and don't care. One of the appeals of going to college for me was that I didn't have to go to class if I didn't want to. Just show up to my class on time and everything's cool.
Tests- I don't like them. I prefer oral exams and practical tests- show me you know how to do it. In the film business rarely is there one right answer, usually there are several ways to reach the same conclusion. A standard test doesn't allow for options.
Writing- We will write a lot, tear it up and write some more. You have to be able to express yourself through the written word.
Class participation- Critical. For starters it takes the pressure off the dumb teacher to fill up the time, but more importantly, when we start having a dialog in class as opposed to me talking at you, the class is better.
Presentation- Almost all of my classes have components of students making a presentation to the rest of the class and defending their position. You can not manage in today's workplace with out being able to speak well and concisely.
As I read over these last three topics (I tend to blog in stream of consciousness) it is clear to me that developing good communication skills is a driving force behind my teaching. Being in the communication business, I guess this makes sense.
Friday, September 7, 2007
School resumed this week in Chicago and the big yellow buses are a reminder of just how much I hated going to school. While I was a good student and had lots of friends and did lots of extracurricular activities I just plain hated going to school. All those rules and regulations, do this and do that- who needs it? But now I am a college teacher so go figure.
From Montessori until I graduated from high school I went to school everyday with my father. Each morning we would get up and have breakfast- the same thing, cereal. After 1700 of these breakfasts before my 18th birthday I now refuse to eat cereal. (The last time was in England a few years ago when my alternative was a “healthy” full English breakfast.)
Our conversation consisted of this: Dad: Eat your flakes. Me: OK.
The sum total of 14 years of weekday morning conversation- 4 words.
Several of those years my dad had a Volkswagon I had to push to get it started and then run to catch up to the car a la Little Miss Sunshine. These moments with my dad were often the highlight of my school day. It was downhill - literally from that start- from there.
So with apologies to Gustave Flaubert below are a series of highlights (lowlights?) of my early education.
Montessori- My grandmother, Kakky, picked me up and asked me what I learned today. I said, “I don’t know.” She said you were in school all day and didn’t learn anything? Oh to have been able to shift into my adult head and say, “You know it was all that 2+2 is 4 and ABC bullshit. Give me a break grandma!.” Instead I said something like “we used crayons” and hoped for unconditional grandmotherly love.
Second grade- Luckily I was allowed to skip first grade, I don’t think I could have handled any more rudimentary education. However, skipping a grade made me forever the youngest in my class.
Fourth grade- Each weekend Mrs. Hackworth (a sometime reader of this page) made the class memorize a poem and be prepared to recite it in front of the class on Monday morning. Now as every fourth grader knows poems rhyme, that’s the definition of poetry, right? Evidently not. Mrs. H. gave us “real poetry” the crap that doesn’t rhyme or make any sense. Poetry and public speaking- I’m in fourth grade this is not Victorian England! Note to Mrs. Hackworth, thanks to you I still have trouble sleeping on Sunday nights in anticipation of failing my poetry reading.
Fifth grade- An insane woman comes to our class room and speaks only in French to us. She refuses to allow any English. This is funny for the first five minutes, then we think she is seriously disturbed. This continues for days and weeks. Finally I burst out, “Je vais a la salle de bains.” Where this comes from even surprises me but my point is made and I was allowed to escape to the bathroom. (I know it really means “I go to the bathroom” but we had covered “May I” yet.)
Seventh Grade- By now I am thoroughly ensconced in the third ring of education Hell. Our assignment is to write a science report and make an oral presentation to the rest of the seventh grade on a topic picked randomly from a hat. My pick: the reproductive process of amphibians. No, nothing safe an easy like the Big Bang (at least my school believed in that) . Being good (strict?) parents I had to rehearse my speech in front of them. I do not know what is worse, talking about frog sperm in front of my parents or in front of 50 7th graders.
Ninth Grade- What is with this incessant need for my teachers to insist on memorization and public speaking? Draconian Mr. Grunwald makes the class memorize the Declaration of Independence from the preamble through the charges section. (Even then I was certain this is something that I would never need to do at any time of my life.) Then, over the course of a month he randomly picked students to recite passages to the class. So I memorized the damn thing and he never called on me!
That’s enough for now I am having bad flashbacks.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Labor Day got me thinking about hard work- something I try to avoid at all costs. Aren't p.a.s and t.a.s supposed to do the hard stuff while directors and "professors" do the "Big Picture" work?
One of those cliches (if I knew how to do one of those accent things over the e in cliche I would do it, so you grammar police leave me alone) every bad football coach likes to trot out is "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." Yuck! As bad sports cliches go I much prefer "There is no 'I' in team,"but that is for another post.
But those bad coaches are on to something and I have seen first hand truly great performers bust their butts rehearsing when other mere mortals (or dumb filmmakers) would have been off doing something more fun. I am going to share a few of those stories here and you can infer what you want.
1) In 2001 I was making a TV show for kids called Rainbow Soup about art and world culture and got to observe a lot of different artists in their process. As part of this I had the chance to see and interview Peter Gabriel (pictured here) as he played his first concert in eight years. It was a rather sudden appearance- he was going to headline the Womad Festival in Seattle after Robert Plant had to back out. Originally Peter was going to place a simple acoustic set, but two days before the show he decided to go all out with a band. At 7am on a Sunday morning, twelve hours before he was to go on stage, there is Gabriel and band in a park in Seattle working their assess off rehearsing for the show. At 7 that night he walked on stage and 30,000 people went crazy. He proceeded to play, by his own admission, a very mediocre set. As part of our arrangement I spoke with him on camera just after he walked off stage. He shook his head and looked into the camera and said, "That's what you get when you only rehearse for two days." I'll never forget it, or him really working hard when he didn't have to. The crowd loved him anyway.
2) At the end of our commercial reel there is a spot for MVP.com where Michael Jordan looks into the camera and asks, "Any Questions?" Jim shot him at a Bulls practice, Michael was staying late, by himself shooting free throws. The six-time NBA champ and MVP was in the gym by himself practicing. Did he need to do that? He thought so.
3) Years ago I had to go on a location scout at a local Chicago nightclub. When the manager met us at the door and let us in and in there was loud music playing in the background. It sounded like Elvis Costello to me- he was in the middle of a three or four day stop in Chicago. We round the corner and there on stage was Elvis and the Attractions rehearsing. The manager of the venue asked me if I minded them rehearsing while we were there. What was I going to say, "No! Elvis give it a rest we need to talk here." Of course he could play, however I needed to get on the stage so Elvis stopped what he was doing and invited us up. He was very gentlemanly, asked us what we were about to shoot and if it was OK if he could continue his rehearsal. When I was finished with my work he paused and asked if everything was OK. I said sure and asked if I could watch for a while. He said yes, and proceeded to tear into Pump it Up. My question is this. In the thousands of shows Elvis has played since the mid 1970s how many times has he played Pump it Up? Thousands? Did they really need to rehearse that badly? I guess so.
Practice makes perfect. (Sorry for the cliche.)