04 Mar The Foundations of Cinema
Suki and I got back to work on “All The Rage” yesterday after two solid weeks of having the kids at home due to snow days. Snow days are good way to practice learning to accept what comes. It was distraction from the work, but sometimes stepping away gives up renewed perspective.
One of the most difficult parts of making a film is figuring out how it begins. Information builds upon itself, and in some ways the first things we see are the most important in the film because they are like the DNA that forms the foundation for all that follows. We like to think of a film as a river that flows forward with every shot, and idea, building on the one before it, as well as each one that follows. The early scenes are like memories that become part of our unconscious understanding of the whole. When choosing these first frames we also have to be aware of how the ideas, and aesthetics with which they are presented, interact with the frame that the audience members view the world through.
One tool that writers use when constructing a narrative is to ask the questions “What do the characters know, what does the audience know, and how do those understandings interact?” This can also framed in a slightly different way as, “What does the audience know and what do they need to know? The idea of knowledge and what it means is central to all storytelling. Dealing with this idea in terms of a film that is very much about what our culture collectively understands, and how it interacts with that knowledge, makes this process a very tricky proposition. Things are made even more complicated by the fact that cultural awareness of the import of mind body interaction is shifting and changing at a staggering pace.
Yesterday Suki and I once again went back to the very beginning of the rough cut of “All The Rage” to figure out if it was doing what we needed it to do. Our first attempt began with a scene focused on Dr. Sarno. That worked fine, but as the film moved forward it created narrative complications. The first act is almost entirely about Dr. Sarno, but the film expands to take on a broader range of health care issues and ideas. We needed to figure out how to set up the idea that Dr. Sarno is central to the story, need to weave in the idea that other threads pick up the weight of the story in the second act. If we get to the second act without setting this up, then the audience will feel lost.
For our next attempt we focused on using my families’ history with Dr. Sarno to launch the story. We worked out a long voice over and planned an animation to bring it to life. As my story will be one of the threads that tie together the film it made sense to have both myself and Dr. Sarno in the film at the beginning. It never felt completely right though. One of the struggles we are facing is how to balance my role as character and co-director. It is my belief that by being honest, real, and somewhat emotionally naked in the film, I can help to communicate the complexity of these ideas on a personal and intellectual level. Still, the process is fraught with minefields. If it becomes too much about my story, am I being an ego-driven and minimizing, or encroaching on, the story of Dr. Sarno? If my story doesn’t work, how do we narratively connect the diverse story threads?
We then tried to start with a strong quote from Howard Stern that sets up some of the fundamental conflicts of the story in relation to Dr. Sarno’s efforts to get his ideas accepted. That felt like it was working but it was also a bit too argumentative; as if the film was setting out to prove something. Yesterday we started to work on figuring out what exactly needed to be communicated, and we started to once again work on a voice over to set things up. As we did that we realized that the Larry David scene might be a good pathway into the larger ideas so we started to work with that footage once again.
At the beginning of the scene he starts by cracking “What are we doing? I feel like it’s a very unprofessional operation.” I responded by explaining that “the fact that is is semi-unprofessional is kind of the point. I always want to not do it the right way because if you do it the right way its kind of boring right?” He laughs and says, “I like the cut of your jib,” and goes on to tell us a much longer version of his story of healing with Dr. Sarno’s help, than we had previously cut.
In this way, we start to build an understanding that this film will be largely about Dr. Sarno and his ideas, but also how those ideas move through the world. When the interview starts Larry David says, “I can’t remember how I heard about Dr. Sarno.” In some ways this is the real “first line” of the film, and it both raises questions (about the way in which word of Dr. Sarno was spread) and tells the audience in very clear terms that this is a film that will explore the mystery of Dr. Sarno. Aesthetically, by including our conversation with Larry David, we are also telling the audience that I will be a part of the story. We are preparing the audience to be ready for what comes.
Like a narrative film in which each word has been vetted and thought about, and in which each camera angle, lighting choice, and music cue is carefully considered, we are slowly and painstakingly thinking about how each moment of the film will build on each other.
Who is Dr. Sarno? Why should we care? These two questions are asked and partially answered in the first scene. Larry David lets us know that he’s a doctor that treats pain, and by having one of the most respected intellectual entertainers in America tell us his story of a miraculous recovery, we get a sense that he is important. The audience will surely want to know more about him.
However, the film is about much more than Dr. Sarno. It’s a film about ideas and how they move through the world. Dr. Sarno’s story gives us a means to examine these questions. The trick is figuring out how to engage with these ideas in such a way that the questions are raised for the audience without having them stated directly. Engaging the audience in a way that allows them to both discover the questions and the answers for themselves leaves room for them to process the ideas much more deeply than if they are simply told these things..
One of the reasons that we decided to leave in the discussion about the professionalism of our operation is because it points to a fundamental part of our path and our process. I have been making music, photos, and films, for 25 years, but I have never wanted do things the way they are supposed to be done. Early on I realized that the well-traveled road does not lead to new ideas or understanding. If we make things that are extremely wild and different, some people who are looking for new ideas get excited, but most people don’t feel settled enough to understand the work. The trick is walking close enough to the beaten path that we can see where it leads, without getting stuck in the ruts. This issue is equally true in terms of both ideas and aesthetics.
After working on this piece for a while I checked in with Suki and we realized that while the Larry David scene worked, it wasn’t the full solution either. We experimented with adding back in Howard Stern, as well as a person we met at a screening who had discovered Dr. Sarno via Howard Stern. That worked but we replaced the person from the screening with Dr. Andrew Weil. At that point I had to run my younger daughter to Karate class. When I got back I found that my older daughter suggested that we mix it up a bit. While we were out she intercut all three characters and things seemed to click into place.
Now we have three well known, widely respected people talking about their different experiences with Dr. Sarno and his work before we even know who he is. When we meet him we are ready to both question these bold assertions about his power, and primed to believe him on some level. While I was driving to karate I heard an exciting story on NPR. The world is rapidly becoming comfortable with the idea that our emotions, and our stress, have a profound impact on our health. That’s the next post.