On numerous occasions, I was asked to cast non-Asian people in at least
two, if not all of the four lead roles, to justify potential financiers
investments. I tried Asian American private investors and patron-of-the-arts
organizations. But with my Caucasian last name, and my half-Asian looks,
it was hard to convince anyone that I was a worthy spokesperson for
the Asian American community.
If not for the rise of digital video production, I probably never would
have made Charlotte Sometimes. To be honest, most of the early films
of the digital revolution didnt impress me. But after seeing a
very successful Dogma project on 35 mm (The Celebration), I decided
to shoot with whatever resources I could marshal. I asked a friend who
worked in cable television what she thought an Asian American film might
be worth to a cable channel. She said $20,000, tops. With that number
in mind, I went to my parents and my uncles and basically asked for
Bang for Your Buck
There are at least a dozen events I mean incredible strokes of
good fortune without which Charlotte Sometimes would have been
a waste of my familys money. The first of these was an introduction
to Michael Kastenbaum in December of 2000.
Michael was the only non-homeless person I had ever met who was in a
worse financial situation than me. When I called him for the first time,
he was working at a fruit smoothie stand in Venice Beach. (He didnt
mention this, of course). I knew him as the President and co-founder
of Visionbox Pictures.
Michael assured me twenty grand was plenty enough to shoot a DV project.
In fact, hed shot several for ten. He convinced his partner/Visionbox
co-founder John Manulis to offer me a production services deal. From
that point on, the Visionbox team which included producer/line
producer/first AD Marc Ambrose and co-producer Brooke Dammkoehler
took care of the many aspects of production that I didnt know
how to do.
As director, the focus of production for me was always the actors and
their performances. The cameras and other equipment were there to observe
and record, never to intrude. In this way, digital video was not only
a necessity, it was an artistic advantage.
We only had 14 shooting days, but with the light-weight cameras, inexpensive
stock, simple lighting set-ups, and a skeleton crew ranging between
one (me) and ten, we spent the majority of our time with the cameras
rolling. The actors were never put on hold while we obsessed over tracking
shots or focus pulls, and almost never had to repeat for camera.
In fact, the only time it felt like anything other than the actors
set was when we had complications with sound.
We used Sony cameras, sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three.
We used two Sony PD 150s with 16x9 lens adapters for the first five
days. For the next three days we added a third camera a Sony
DSR 500. The final six days were shot with a single DSR 500. Sound was
recorded on DAT, except for three shooting days, when it was recorded
directly into the DSR 500.
Most of the locations were within a one-mile radius, and all but two
of them were fee-free. Under the SAG Limited Exhibition agreement, we
paid our actors $75 a day, and paid our crew members the same. The largest
expenses were equipment rentals and producer fees. I never paid myself,
but I have deferred payments coming soon. The actors will also receive
additional checks because our exhibition will go beyond film festivals.
Style & Character
I learned from early Altman films that certain stylistic choices add
a sense of realism to a character driven film. For instance, McCabe
& Mrs. Miller is the only Western Ive ever seen where I actually
believe Im in the Old West. Likewise for The Long Goodbye and
the detective movie genre.
In those films, scenes are essentially shot from one vantage point.
There is cutting to change shot scale, or to shift eyes to another part
of the room, but its clear the scene was not repeated multiple
times for coverage. Intuitively, we get the sense that the
events happened only once, and the camera could only catch what it could
catch. With wide eye-lines, as opposed to over-the-shoulder shots that
float in the characters peripheral vision, we feel as if these
characters are real people, who might not be aware of the cameras
existence. We are simply visitors in a world that existed before the
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the film I showed to DP Robert Humphreys
during pre-production. The one vantage point approach not
only lent itself to my artistic sensibilities, it also meant less time
moving the camera and re-lighting, and more time with actors in character
and cameras rolling.
We chose not to go with digital conventions. Most of the movie was shot
on tripods. When we did go hand-held, we aimed at steadiness, rather
than purposely shaking the camera. We planned for long takes, most of
which were included in the final film without cut-aways, and lit and
composed every shot as if we knew it would one day end up on 35mm.
As luck would have it, Visionbox and Alpha Cine Seattle got together
to offer me a really inexpensive film-out deal. The result was so astonishingly
beautiful, it surprised everyone including me, including Alpha
Cine, including Robert Humphreys, even Co-Producer Chris Miller who
oversaw the whole deal. But thats another story...
(click here for part two)