This was my second crack at shooting a promotional video for a Catastrophic Theatre production, the first being “The Blackest Shore.” The theatre’s next production was Mickle Maher’s “The Hunchback Variations” and Kirk Markley (Managing Director) asked me to think outside the box on this one. He’d given me a few links to theatre promos, such as this one from Theatre Oobleck’s own production of Hunchback. I pondered the challenge for weeks until I’d reached the verge of creative panic. Really, I avoided thinking about it for fear that I wouldn’t think of anything. When the heavens didn’t open up and send down inspiration, I finally sat down and forced myself to brainstorm, which began with (verbatim):
- I could do just a dressing room scene.
- sound objects not making the right sounds
- crosscutting between simultaneous actions
- Quasimodo emerging from a drainage pipe
- Beethoven putting sound drops into his deaf ears
That immediately gave me enough to write a draft of the script. The narrative vision materialized pretty quickly from there. I don’t expect that to ever be the norm, but it was pretty relieving to experience it. In my experience, having creative freedom can be overwhelming. There needs to be structure and/or rules in order to first identify a “problem” and then creatively promote it’s solution. I suppose the trick is in figuring out a process that provides structure as opposed to looking at a model for the final solution. In this case, I opened up to some images and actions that I could then connect in a causal way that felt unexpected. And I figured if it surprised me, it just might surprise an audience.
When I brought the script to Kirk, I think he was a bit apprehensive. So was the play’s director Greg Dean, who also played Quasimodo in the production. It was very conceptual and the degree to which the script was able to convey what I “saw” proved to be tenuous. Such is the trouble with pitching any screenplay. The narrative relied on thematic connections and auditory concepts that are difficult to make clear in screenplay format. I wasn’t prepared for the apprehension either. But I deeply appreciate Kirk and especially Greg’s trust in green-lighting the idea.
David Lynch, in his book “Catching the Big Fish,” talks about the artist’s ambition to produce work that most closely resembles the initial vision. As any perfectionist knows, that can be a very troublesome comparison, having to accept the final product ends up wide of the intended vision. That’s especially true of film, given so many disciplines and collaborators, the final product deserves to be it’s own thing in the end. What I discovered was how this short film was the closest I’d ever come to my creative expectation. That required openly accepting the creative input of the filmmaker’s and musicians that helped bring it to the screen. What I “saw” was the potential for this idea to come together around a narrative design.
Next, I storyboarded the entire thing. The director of photography, Kerianne Ennis, took what I was going for and composed images that were better than what I initially visualized. The ideas were taken further with creative details and craft that were entirely her own. I’ve come to really appreciate how a storyboard serves to articulate the visual components of the narrative, specifically how it organizes “information” like words that form a comprehensive sentence. They also help design around rules of continuity and clear film grammar. But the level of craft and aesthetic that goes into actually making these images with a camera requires an ability to craft images that “speak” clearly and eloquently. Kay’s work with the camera speaks for itself.
I also want to comment on Jeff Miller’s performance (Beethoven), which really impressed me. Not only does he have a “look” that reminds me of Ray Liotta, or that he commits 100% to what he’s doing in every take, but he is just as professional when the camera isn’t rolling. I’ve worked with Jeff before, co-starring with him in a production of Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” in 2014. I’ve known Jeff for over 10 years, but finally sharing the stage with him, trusting each other in front of a room full of people, definitely impacted what I felt was a great deal of trust in the process of making the short. Prior to this, he’d never done film work before. I think that needs to change for sure.
I owe a great deal of gratitude to Greg Dean (Quasimodo). Our journey into the storm sewer was way more than any reasonable professional would accept. But Greg followed me into an uncharted drainage culvert where we slogged through 2 feet of mud, every step producing a ridiculous amount of suction that threatened to swallow our shoes. The storm sewer was a new bit of construction along Buffalo Bayou to help drain the park areas. It wasn’t until we ventured into the culvert (with plans of staging Quasimodo sitting at a small table) that we found a 4′ diameter drainage pipe. It was just a 15 foot run, but it opened into a brand new catch basin. The manhole cover above let in just a few shafts of light, and in the center of the chamber was a perfect little mound of mud. It was like we’d designed and built the perfect set for Quasimodo’s chamber! If Greg was feeling a little wary about traveling into the culvert, maybe even a bit uncomfortable as he crawled down the 4′ drain pipe while wearing a prosthetic hunch, a long coat, and a mask that left him blind in one eye, he definitely seemed relieved after we finished shooting. And I know it was because it felt worth it.
The next hurdle, and what nearly didn’t happen given the time constraints, was the sound score. I wanted the film to slip into Beethoven’s subjective by giving the audience access to the world as Beethoven heard it: music. The idea was to foley all of the sound using only musical instruments in not necessarily musical ways. Conceptually, I wanted a kind of cacophony of sound to give way to a singularity, the tone of a wine glass, that would bring the narrative full circle. It was open to interpretation beyond that, so I let a very talented collection of musicians from Two Star Symphony (+Joe Wozny) improvise from there. I set up a projector so everyone could see the action clearly and then we started with a rather long cue sheet of sound effects. We went around the room, letting anyone with an idea record their interpretation of a sound effect. But the magic really occurred when we dropped the cue sheet and recorded them perform a bed of improvised sounds and tonal ambience for a majority of the film in one long take. The final mix has two separate takes edited together and layered on top of one another along with individual foley sounds. This was such an important part of the narrative and I am very grateful for their creative commitment and amazing work.
Last, I want to comment on the choice of black and white. That’s just the way I saw it for some reason, intuitively speaking. But it made sense because I think it helps focus the audience’s attention on the juxtaposition of action and sound. Deprevation and the subsequent affects on our perception seemed relevant to Beethoven and the narrative. That’s a bit high-minded but I think it’s essential to make a connection between a story and it’s narrative: what you want your audience to understand has everything to do with how you lead them to that understanding.
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