NO ALTERNATIVE: “…And That’s A Wrap!”

The last time I updated my blog, we had yet to begin production on “No Alternative.” Perhaps it’s a testament to the all-consuming nature of production that you have not heard from me since! I am therefore extremely pleased to write that we’ve finished principal photography and the film is in the proverbial “can.”

On the set of “No Alternative.” Photograph by Joshua Sarner.

It want to reiterate that I would not have been able to get this far without the help and support of everyone who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Because of the strength of the Indiegogo campaign and your stalwart support of the cause, this project has gained the attention of magazine, newspaper and television outlets around the country. It also attracted the interest of investors who also believed in the film — both in its message, and in its commercial viability.

I can honestly say that everyone involved in the filming, from the actors to each and every crew member, was emotionally connected to the material and brought their A-Games to the set:

It was an absolute pleasure to work amidst such a passionate and talented group of people. The leads, Michaela Cavazos and Conor Proft, impressed me more and more each passing day. They were outstanding as Bridget and Thomas Harrison and I can’t wait for viewers to see just how outstanding their performances are on screen. I was also thrilled to work with veteran actors, Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and Harry Hamlin (“Mad Men”), who played the Harrison parents. I can’t thank them enough for their passion, generosity and faith in me as their director. Coming-of-age movies about families are hard to make in Hollywood, but I truly feel this movie was meant to be made — it was a near-impossible task, but everyone’s contributions made it possible. And it was not only monetary contributions: people donated their time, their 90’s era vehicles, their wardrobe, their food, their houses (as locations and for lodging), their instruments, their band logos and music, among many, many other valuable goods and services. My hometown, the City of Yonkers, could not have been more accommodating throughout the process — it has always bee a dream of mine to shoot this film there. This project was about as grassroots as it gets; and you know what, each and every step of it was invigorating!

Left to right: Conor Proft, Kathryn Erbe, William Dickerson, Harry Hamlin, Michaela Cavazos.

I’m extremely excited to be heading into the next phase of the film: the editing phase. We have a wonderful editor, Natasha Bedu, who has spent a lot of her time recently cutting the Emmy Award-winning series “Intervention” on A&E. Natasha couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team, and I’m thrilled to have her on board!

As we venture into post-production, our fiscal sponsor, From the Heart Productions, has encouraged us to continue raising money for this final, and crucial, part of the process. Those looking for end-of-the-year tax deductions, all contributions remain fully tax-deductible. Please share the project, if you haven’t done so already, and consider adding to your contribution if you feel compelled to do so — we’ve already done so much with a relatively small amount of money (by Hollywood’s standards), a little bit more will assure we get the best post-production sound and color correction we can swing. Here is a link to our current campaign:

https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm

Thank you so much for your support! I wish you all the best this holiday season!!

 

An Inside Look Into the Making of “No Alternative”

I’m thrilled to announce that Film Slate Magazine will be publishing a series of real time updates on the pre-production, production and post-production of my film, “No Alternative.”

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“No Alternative” is a personal film that, these days, is near impossible to get made in Hollywood. I’ve written a great deal about how the decline of the middle space of filmmaking has essentially mirrored the decline of the middle class in this country—the chasm between the one percent of filmmaking—tent-pole blockbusters—and the ninety-nine percent—indie films, which have been relegated to shrinking microbudget levels—has never been greater, or more stark.

I’ve directed a few features and never really considered crowdfunding as an option, but Hollywood’s rather myopic focus on the “biggest” and “broadest” has led indie filmmakers like me to welcome such an avenue—we’ve always had to beg, borrow and steal, but such an ethos has never been more germane to independent filmmaking as it is right now. Inspired by my sister’s real-life struggles with mental illness, “No Alternative” couldn’t be more personal to me, and therefore it made for a good project to attempt to crowdfund. Through my research, I’ve found that people are more likely to contribute to a person with a personal story, with a cause, than to simply a story itself.

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We raised over $50,000 through Indiegogo and continue to raise funds through our non-profit sponsor, From The Heart Productions here: https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm. The campaign attracted a lot of attention and drew support from a great deal of people, including Amazon Studio’s own Ted Hope. We’ve been able to raise eighty-five percent of our budget from outside investors who were also drawn to the project and its accompanying crowdfunding campaign. It’s important to remember that crowdfunding campaigns are not only about raising money, they’re also about establishing, and subsequently building, your base. This base includes supporters, fans and potential business partners like investors, producers and keys of departments. The crowdfunding page for your film serves as its “go-to” hub for people interested in it. The best part of it is: if they like what they see and hear, they can be a part of making the movie a reality!

I’ve been open and honest not only about my personal connection to the material, but also about the filmmaking process itself. I’ve written a book on microbudget filmmaking and plan to put my experience and theories on the subject to the test on this film, and I will be keeping a journal of sorts of the process and publishing it in Film Slate Magazine over these next few months as we make “No Alternative.” Stay tuned!

The Interview: A to Z with Angelica Zollo

I am thrilled to be interviewing artist, filmmaker and supporter of “No Alternative,” Angelica Zollo this week. Angelica recently graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School and will be directing her first feature film, the fascinating “Trauma is a Time Machine,” this fall in New York. I have no doubt she is going to be a filmmaker to watch!

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WD: First of all, Angelica, thank you so much for supporting “No Alternative.” How did you find out about the campaign?

AZ: My boyfriend, a fellow filmmaker passed on an article that featured your campaign. I read about your film and watched your campaign video. I was immediately struck by the personal and moving story that you are telling. As someone with mental difference and as someone very interested in telling real stories about using art to express and heal both from living with a mental difference and grieving a loved one. I really connected to the story. I wanted to help in any way I could. It is so important to tell stories about these things, these real experiences that so many are frightened to talk about.

WD: It is extremely important, and I’m glad to see that you want to tell these types of stories as well. I also see that you’re an artist who wears many hats — writing, photography, singing, and of course, filmmaking — do you prefer one medium over the others? If so, which medium and why?

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AZ: I love all of these mediums. I have always loved writing ever since I was little in many different forms. Film has been with me my whole life as I grew up in a family of storytellers. Photography is something I have always done and I constantly get inspiration from photographers’ work. Music also is a big part of my life. I admire so many different artists across many genres. Singing is a healing place for me. It is so important to have a safe place to work through regardless of the medium. There is catharsis in making things and then sharing them, in letting them go, and then hopefully whoever connects with it will feel something and have some kind of response or healing of their own.

WD: You mention catharsis as something artists experience upon the completion of their work. I couldn’t agree more. Do you also think catharsis is something necessary for the experiencer of the artist’s work to undergo as well?

AZ: Definitely, I think it is an experience that hopefully is shared between the viewer and the creator. Regardless of the feeling experienced, hopefully the viewer can relate to something or think they have felt that or know what something is like, or maybe it is just an imagined feeling that now they can see be played out on screen.

WD: Who are some of your artistic inspirations and role models? And why?

AZ: There are so many! My parents are both film and theatre producers and my grandparents also were in film, writing and acting. I am constantly in awe of their hard work and passion for telling stories. I am inspired by artists who aren’t afraid to use their own voice to speak about things that are not necessarily talked about or are difficult. There are also so many incredible female storytellers that have important stories to tell. Not enough of them are heard.

I am constantly watching, reading and listening. I watch loads of old films, and try to watch as much as I can. To name a few new and old: Agnes Varda, Billy Wilder, David Lean, Mike Nichols, William Wyler, George Cukor, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Susane Bier, Andrea Arnold, Howard Hawkes, Spike Jonze, Derek Cianfrance, Hal Ashby, Frank Capra, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Luis Bunuel, John Cassavetes, Chantal Ackerman, Spike Lee, Xavier Dolan, the list goes on and on. I know I have forgotten so many!

WD: I’m thrilled to hear that you’re about to make your first feature film. You describe the film, which is called “Trauma is a Time Machine,” as exploring the manifestations and experience and healing of trauma through the eyes of a young woman named Helen. This sounds like a very character-driven, emotional film. Why do you want to make it? Why this story?

AZ: Trauma and healing from or working through trauma is something that I really wanted to tackle on screen. So many of us experience trauma in many different forms. Something that I know from experience and from talking to others is that trauma is fragmented, it is in pieces. Our entire nervous system changes in trauma. We go into survival mode and have to face it in some way, there are so many different stages. Trauma isn’t linear. I’m interested in trying to give trauma a narrative and a timeline on screen in a realistic way. I also knew this was a story I wanted to tell and with my close friend Daisy Bevan as the lead. She is a fantastic actress and artist and I knew I could trust her with this story. She is fearless and genuine and incredibly intelligent. I have always wanted to create with her.

WD: Stylistically speaking, you state “The film will be a deep look into the mindset of Helen, an artistic, fragmented, realistic, but also at sometimes dreamlike view at what it feels like to experience and heal from trauma, a way to structure trauma on screen.” How are you visualizing this concept? Will this venture into surrealism? Have you thought about the camera work; the point of view of the film?

AZ: This will be a challenge, showing the manifestations and healings of trauma on screen, but also an exciting one. It will definitely venture into the dreamlike and the surrealist. It will be from her point of view. We will be following Helen’s journey in its fragmented nature. As she picks up the pieces, the viewers will as well.

WD: Following that: is their a sci-fi aspect to the film? I mention it because of the phrase “Time Machine” in your title.

AZ: It does sound a bit sci-fi! The story behind the title is that I really believe that trauma brings someone on a kind of journey into time travel. One can be anywhere, anytime, and the feelings of trauma can flood back at anytime and anywhere.

WD: I noticed that we share a number of filmmakers whom we admire, including Luis Bunuel. Since your film delves into surrealism, I’m curious, what’s your favorite movie of his, and is there a movie of his that has inspired any of your stylistic choices for your film?

AZ: I am not sure what my favorite is, but I love “L’Age d’Or” and “Un Chien Andalou.” The surrealism and dreamworlds created, the editing, the art and references to photography, the bizarre and the romantic.

WD: You’re from London, but currently living in the States. Do you feel like the U.S. is a better environment to make movies in? There has been an overwhelming, and rather disconcerting, trend of Hollywood films eclipsing the world of indie filmmaking; a world in which it seems “Trauma is a Time Machine” belongs. Are you worried about the viability of such an emotional and personal film in the current state of blockbuster movie fare?

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AZ: I love London and will always feel like a Londoner. There are so many great London filmmakers and films being made there. There is a lovely sense of community in the film world there. There is also a bit of an indie renaissance happening at the moment. I think it always was, but more voices are being heard. All I can worry about at the moment is making the best film as I can and having as many people see it as I can. I think truth and trust in the story is all you can really focus on.

WD: Have you heard of “The Fifth Wall?” It seems your film may be classified within this new
movement of independent film. What are your thoughts on such a movement and where your film fits, if at all, into it?

AZ: I read up a bit on this. It is definitely an interesting type of filmmaking. I guess my film could fit in it, but I am not too conscious of what it could fit into or not fit in to. I am just focused on the story and bringing together a team of people who I trust and connect to the story to bring it to life.

WD: When do you plan to begin production on “Trauma is a Time Machine?”

AZ: We begin shooting at the end of August in New York City.

WD: What are your plans for the film after you make it?

AZ: I would just love as many people as possible to see it. We will be submitting to festivals.

WD: What do you see yourself working on in the future? Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

AZ: I will continue writing in many different forms and hopefully produce films and theatre. There are a couple things in the works development wise at the moment. I also would love to continue singing in some way or another. I will have some of my music in my film.

WD: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from another artist or filmmaker? In turn, what’s the best piece of advice that you’d like to give to aspiring artists?

AZ: Create as much as you can. Make decisions even if they turn out to be the wrong ones, film is collaborative and everyone learns from each other. Believe in your story and trust your intuition. Listen to each other. A genius editor once told me: “It is not what you leave in, but what you take out.”

WD: I love the quote: “It is not what you leave in, but what you take out.” This can be applied to much more than editing!

AZ: It was said by the brilliant editor Stuart Baird.

WD: Where else can we find you online and learn more about what you’re up to?

AZ: I have a photography website: angelicazollo.com and a sound cloud page with some recordings www.soundcloud.com/atozmachine.

***

I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Angelica Zollo for the interview and encourage everyone to check out her photography and music, and to keep an eye out for her debut feature film “Trauma is a Time Machine.” The above photos were taken by Angelica Zollo and are featured on her website.

Triptych: The Three Doors

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July 1st, 2016 marks two years since my sister, Briana, died. It’s surreal to write those words. I promised myself that I would post a piece of writing either about, or inspired by, my sister annually on this date. It is this commitment I honor forthwith.

The grieving process is something that does not end. It’s just not that simple, though I, and others I’m sure, wish it were. It’s akin to the aging process, meaning that we cannot stop it; we must accept it and embrace it as a part of our life. Death, in fact, is as much a part of our lives as life itself. I’ve grown a great deal over the past two years, largely due to the tragic and untimely, passing of Briana. The notion that heartbreaking events put one’s life in perspective is accurate. I have dedicated the past decade of my life to pursuing my dream of making movies. This dedication moved me to Los Angeles, over three thousand miles away from my family, away from my friends, away from my sister. I rarely saw Briana these past ten years, and when I did see her, she was so numbed by drugs in an effort to shield herself from the debilitating effects of her borderline personality disorder that our reunions were limited, disconnected and generally worrisome.

If there’s one thing in life I fear most, it is regret that I fear. Regret is something that terrifies me—will I find myself on my deathbed regretting the choices I made during my tenure in this life? Regret, as both a literary and cinematic theme, consistently weaves its way through my work. It is, perhaps, a bit of an obsession, as any decent artistic theme should be, really. It is also obsession that brought me here to LA in the first place; it is obsession that has fueled my filmmaking pursuits.

My sister and I both shared a love for movies. While I decided to pursue movies as my artistic outlet, she decided to pursue painting, and one of my favorite pieces she created is a triptych of movie theater entrances—those ubiquitous square portals that exist inside a variety of multiplexes worldwide. Movies were, and continue to be, important to my family—the shared experience of going to the movies and watching these emotional rollercoasters on the big screen together and reacting to them collectively, has had a profound effect on me. Briana had a terrific laugh, and we shared many laughs together at the movies (not to mention countless laughs when we both discovered “Da Ali G Show” back in the day). That is why this particular painting—or, rather, three paintings—holds a great deal of meaning for me, and why it hangs on my wall today.

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The entrance to a movie theater is a magical thing: it’s like the door to a spaceship that transports you to worlds you could never fathom existed in other people’s minds. You proceed down a carpeted hallway, within which the unmistakable smell of buttered popcorn wafts through the air, to a succession of doorways, each entrance identical except for the glowing title of the movie that occupies the cavernous room beyond the door that week. Once you sit down in that plush seat, and the light of the projector illuminates itself above you, you are instantly whisked away to an endless number of worlds that stand immune to imaginative limitations.

I am in a business where imaginative limitations are something I stand firmly against. This distaste for such limitations extends to my personal life, particularly in light of the fact that my sister is no longer with us—you see, she is still with us, and it is because of memory and imagination that she is. Behind each of the doors she painted, projects a piece of her life.

In the final paragraph of my novel, “No Alternative,” the dead narrator describes how he would like to be remembered:

I have become the impression that’s perceived by my sister, or that’s how I’d like to be remembered, if given the choice. However Bridget remembers me. The extent of my existence, the part of me that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the colors she uses to paint me on the canvas in her head. And I hope she continues to paint.

It has been difficult for me to regain my focus on filmmaking. Part of the point of my novel was to demonstrate to my sister—while she was still with us—just how devastating it would be to lose a sibling through the realization of how important that sibling relationship is to the characters post-death. In a manner of speaking, the relationship I have with my sister today, post-death, has become more important to me than ever. Briana has become the impression that’s perceived by me. The extent of her existence, the part of her that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the light I use to project her onto the screen in my head.

I’ve made it my mission to use my craft, the craft my sister and I held dear, and every resource I have at my disposal—through both my own means and the goodwill of others—to capture her spirit on film, the film based on my novel, which was inspired by her life. The film is “No Alternative” and I have no alternative but to make it.

NO ALTERNATIVE: To Be Continued…

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It has been an incredibly rewarding, and equally exhausting, few months. I launched my first crowdfunding effort for “No Alternative” on Indiegogo, which succeeded in raising over $50,000 for the project. While it missed the mark of my goal, this is a big chunk of the budget that will, no doubt, help the film get off the ground.

I have so many people to thank for their stalwart support. People I went to school with—every school I’ve ever attended: grammar school, high school, college, graduate school—were there for me. My filmmaking mentors in those schools, like Steve Vineberg, Ed Isser, D.C. Fontana and Jim McBride, all threw into the pot. People who I’ve known all my life, people who I’ve only met once or twice, came to my aid. There were total strangers, who took time out of their days to watch the crowdfunding video and read up on the project, that contributed, some of whom contributed very large sums. There was even some celebrity love from the likes of Greg Poehler (“You, Me, Her”), Cassidy Freeman (“Longmire,” “Smallville”) and Kimmy Robertson (“Twin Peaks”). Perhaps most inspiring was a donation from the head of film production at Amazon Studios, Ted Hope, a renowned producer and studio head who prides himself on supporting indie film and director-driven, personal movies.

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The campaign for “No Alternative” struck a nerve, as evidenced by our 500+ backers, features in publications like Filmmaker Magazine, Film Slate Magazine, Indiewire and Moviemaker, and the countless messages I’ve received from people affected by mental illness on a daily basis.

As many of you know, the character of  Bri Da B in “No Alternative” is inspired by my sister, Briana, who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the ways she was able to cope with it was through rapping. When the character of Bridget becomes Bri Da B, that transformation into someone else helps lessen her pain. “No Alternative” has always been a love letter to my sister, a plea for her survival. That’s why I wrote the novel that the film is based on. I wish I could tell you that plea was successful. But, unfortunately, I can’t. The majority of my sister’s life was a battle fought against her mental illness, drug addiction and suicidal behavior. A battle she ultimately succumbed to.

While she may have lost her battle, I’m hopeful we can win the war—and after talking to so many other sufferers out there throughout this process, I’m confident we can. The issue of mental illness must, and will, be destigmatized and “No Alternative” is just one step in that direction.

I also must thank From The Heart Productions, who sponsored us as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that supports films that contribute to society. Each donation pledged to “No Alternative” not only helps our film, but also helps other socially conscious films get made. From The Heart has encouraged us to continue raising money for “No Alternative,” and is hosting an extension of our crowdfunding campaign on Network For Good.

What we’ve raised thus far will help us through pre-production and lead us into production. But, we aren’t quite done. This second campaign through From The Heart is meant to build on the momentum we’ve gained and get us through production and into post-production. Remember: EVERY DOLLAR COUNTS. The more we can raise, the higher quality we can achieve—whether it means we can pay for one or two extra crew members, secure an additional day of shooting, or be able to afford the rights to the perfect 90s soundtrack—quite literally, each and every cent matters.

The link to the new campaign is here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

The spirit of “No Alternative” is DIY—do-it-yourself, punk rock, an ethos I truly believe in. But I can’t make this movie alone—I need your help to make it. Please share, contribute and help us continue to build on this momentum into production! In doing so, we can keep the very important conversation about ending the stigma of mental illness alive. I am extremely grateful for the support thus far. Thank you so very much.

All Writing Should Be Eulogies

I’m the go-to guy in my family for eulogies. Someone dies, I’m you’re man. In one respect, this may seem flattering, if not comforting; in every other respect, it’s quite the opposite.

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I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to my sister while she was on life support. She had stopped breathing and was without oxygen to her brain for approximately 40 minutes before the fire department eventually broke down the door and paramedics got a ripple of a pulse back in her.

She was pronounced brain dead. She was going to die. In many respects, she already was.

I sat next to her the day before we were to take her off the breathing machine and the drugs that were stimulating her heart with my laptop open. My parents asked me to write the eulogy, and of course, I would; I was expecting to—Briana would have wanted me to, that I know, without a doubt—but I wasn’t expecting to write it with her in the room. She was still alive, technically, and I began writing her eulogy. I never dreamed that I would be doing such a thing. I had to ask my father “Do I refer to her in the past or present tense?” Again, a question I never thought I would have to ask in a million years. When I say I was writing, what I mean is I stared. Unable to bring myself to start writing, I stared at that blank page for longer than I’ve ever stared at any other before or since.

In that moment, that blank page was my sister. On one hand, her life was taken from her at far too young an age; on the other hand, her life had been mercifully relieved of the burden of her demons. Both sides were ostensibly a blank page; both the beginning and the end, the end and the beginning. For me to write on this page, a page that was pure, that represented both life and death, seemed beyond the scope of my expertise. I felt ill-suited for such a task, a task that was unfair for me to undertake, but also a task unto which I was the only person suited.

I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway when he purportedly said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Every story has been told before. I recoil from the thought of how many people have sat next to a loved one who was dying—one who was unable to be helped no matter how much you wanted to and were willing to help. What hasn’t been told before is the way I, or you in this similar situation, experienced it. To be compelled to write about it is thoroughly human, because the act itself extends beyond us—and beyond the limitations of our expertise—and touches others. The act itself provides both a sense of solace and mutual mourning, which will ultimately provide a sense of hope and unified catharsis as the weight of the tragedy is redistributed to the shoulders of others.

It was once the consensus of the mainstream that the best kinds of art come from the worst kinds of tragedy. The idea of the tortured artist was accepted, and in some cases, the path considered noble. In recent years, this idea is considered unnecessary and pretentious. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, how can you possibly write about it? The answer is: you can’t. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake emotion. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, you haven’t been scarred by it, then you should enjoy the life that you have. I cannot enjoy my life the way I used to, because I am permanently scarred. However, art can help, art can manage, art can guide me to rediscovering how to live again, because learning to live again is exactly what needs to occur, or frankly suicide is as rational an option as any other.

Eventually, I began writing; and it was the best fucking writing I’ve ever done:

http://williamdickersonfilmmaker.com/eulogy-for-my-sister/

While it strains reality to label anything inside this tragedy as a gift, I believe that my sister, in this moment, was giving me a gift. In the ensuing weeks, I went through her things and came across a journal of hers, which she wrote while in a six-month inpatient rehabilitation program for drug addiction. There was quite a bit of writing, and the only mention of me in her journals was a single line that said: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her emotion into her art, as a way of leaking some hope through that din of despair. It wasn’t until several months later, as the grief was exponentially worsening and my productivity hit a standstill, that I thought that, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me, addressing me. Her words were staring back at me from the page: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.

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Hemingway wrote: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.” Living people die, characters do not—characters live on in the eternal mediums they’ve been brought to life within. Perhaps, paradoxically, writing good characters means writing about death, for death is the precipice upon which life precariously leans over, for to stare over that edge is the only way to truly experience life. This is why all writing should be eulogies. To understand death is to understand oneself, one’s fellow man, which is to say, man can never really be understood. Man is an unknown—to treat man as anything else but an unknown, is to ignore our monumental insignificance amidst the unfathomable scope of our universe.

What we can do, as writers, as filmmakers, as artists, is allow another person into the unfathomable existence of another—of one of Hemingway’s “characters.” To do so brings solace, a sense that we’re not alone in this collective struggle, and the act of doing exactly that is art’s sole, and often noble, purpose. To do so makes certain that others know they are not alone at the bedside of their dying kin; there are others there, too. There are others who know.

If Briana’s talent as an artist was her gift to me, then my film, “No Alternative,” will be my gift to her, and to those who both knew her and didn’t get the chance to know her. Bridget, aka Bri Da B, is the best character I’ve ever written, and that’s because I barely had to write it—it wrote itself; this role inhabits the soul of my sister.

Please help me bring this role to life; help me keep the flame of my sister’s life aglow. Check out the campaign to do just that here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

The Beginning of a Movement: THE FIFTH WALL

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“The Fifth Wall” is a response to the modality of contemporary Hollywood. The origins of its manifesto are attributed to my time at the AFI and its message developed along with some of my fellow filmmaking classmates:

While we were at the AFI a few of us conceived of a movement we called “The Fifth Wall.” Whether through the use of surrealism or through meta-fictional truth, we conspired to tell a story that would not only leave the audience resonating with some sort of transcendent beauty, but also, because each of us in “The Fifth Wall” has experienced severe trauma and loss first hand, we endeavor to subconsciously imbue them with a feeling of solace. To send the viewer a message in a bottle, from one empathetic being to another, a communiqué of hope: you’re not alone in your pain. It will get better and you will derive much beauty from the world in the future…

While this movement has been largely theoretical until now, the time is now to put this theory into practice. Hollywood is a business that continues to eclipse the art, originality and storytelling that used to be—and should be—the core of what movies are. The most common justification movie executives give for the broad and banal blockbusters that dominate the box office week after week is: audiences want to escape the troubles of their lives; they don’t want to see something that “hits too close to home.”

This escapist ideology is shortsighted and, in many respects, erroneous.

The idea that human beings turn to art and entertainment as a way to alleviate life’s strain and pressures is accurate. But what is it about art and entertainment that actually provides relief, beyond the temporary escapism? While being transported to cinematic worlds in galaxies far, far away may seem like departures from reality, it doesn’t necessarily benefit your life outside of those two hours; in fact, it might do more harm than good. The science seems to indicate that confronting our emotions, rather than ignoring them, however troubling these emotions might be, is a more effective means through which to purge the pain, anxiety and trauma we encounter day to day. Let’s take a result of such a purge for example: the physical act of crying. The biochemist William H. Frey II purports that the reason people feel better after crying is that it decreases the level of adrenocorticotropic hormones in the blood, hormones associated with the detection of, and response to, threat or other stress-inducing stimuli. It also promotes the production of cortisol, which lowers stress in these types of situations. Putting the science aside, experiencing emotion as a way to cleanse oneself of it is nothing new. Aristotle posited the notion of catharsis in ancient Greece. He believed tragedy, with respect to drama, is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, the purpose of which is to achieve the purgation of those emotions. The act of being a spectator of dramatic tragedy has a tangible, and ultimately positive, effect on the mind and body.

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Catharsis is the basis of psychoanalysis. The expression of the original emotion, one that has been repressed or ignored, is the method through which the healing of trauma can only begin to take place. While movies are not psychoanalysis sessions, the idea that people go to the movies to “escape” means they must be escaping from something. Furthermore—and this is the problem—this same something that is being ignored for a couple hours will only return later and will have become greater and more overwhelming than before. The very origin of dramatic storytelling, predating Greek tragedy, goes back to Egypt around 2800 BC in the form of pyramid texts that depict the dramatic journeys of dead pharaohs entering the underworld.

The earliest dramas all have one thing in common: death. The whole purpose of the invention of drama was realizing a type of catharsis or emotional resolution through confrontation, not some desire for vapid escapism.

Co-founder of “The Fifth Wall,” Paul Sanchez Yates, explains: “I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my art. In fact, I refuse to separate them. These films, these emotion-pictures reveal my inner affections, passions, humors, beliefs and traumas and scars. Unlike the usual Hollywood escapism, these films are extremely personal, sometimes horrible, but always exquisitely real.” Yates continues, “’The Fifth Wall’ is the state I find myself in when I have revealed so much personal truth that I no longer know where I end and the canvas/film begins. In this work I reveal so much about my inner-self that my perspective is lost.”

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Most people tend to look toward the past with regret or to the future with dread. Hollywood provides entertainment that sacrifices emotion for spectacle, spectacle it thinks will allow viewers a respite from the regret and dread behind and in front of them. “The Fifth Wall” provides the regret and the dread, which allows for exactly the kind of respite the audience desires—one that extends beyond those two hours and into their lives after the film.

Middle Class Filmmakers: Do you want to make Hollywood films or Fifth Wall films? Your answer may very well impact the future sustainability of an art form that matters to us a great deal.

#Hollywood99 #MiddleClassFilm #TheFifthWall

THE MICROBUDGET REVOLUTION

IMG_2725Did anyone notice that the movies nominated this year by The Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature were the same movies nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for Best Feature, with the exception of one film, Love Is Strange? If the Academy Awards were created as a platform to showcase commercial Hollywood’s best and brightest, why were the Independent Spirit Awards created? Presumably they were created as the antithesis of the Academy Awards: a platform for independent Hollywood’s best and brightest.

Financially speaking, The Independent Spirit Awards deem an “indie” to be a movie made for under 20 million dollars, but if that 20 million dollar budget is coming from the same studio that made millions of dollars from the latest superhero franchise, is the film in question still capturing that “indie spirit?”

Let’s step back for a minute. 10 to 15 years ago, the studios had their own independent film divisions. They considered independent film a viable product for niche markets of film consumers, so much so that they were willing to blur the idea of what an “indie film” was in order to have a piece of the pie. Today, virtually every studio has dissolved those divisions. They are officially not in the independent film business any longer. This means the independent film is now quite literally independent of studio support. So, why then is an awards show dedicated to independent film, presenting the majority of its awards to films that are not technically independent? Here’s how the Independent Spirit Awards define the rubric of an independent film: “uniqueness of vision, original, provocative subject matter, and an economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation).”

If the studios aren’t funding lower budget, character-driven, niche films anymore, those who are funding them are most definitely not funding them to the tune of 20 million dollars. The days of the 5 to 20 million dollar independent film are over, and have been over for a few years. I’m not saying films aren’t funded inside those numbers currently, but they are very few and far between—so much so, that it is foolish to focus your sights as a filmmaker on making a movie within that range.

If independent film as we know it is dead—at least in the current state of the industry—what is left? What’s left are: studio blockbusters (i.e. movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudget films (i.e. movies made for 1 million dollars and under, and more often far under). The number of studio films made this past year has shrunk by nearly half, while the amount of microbudget films has nearly doubled. The studios are making fewer movies and putting much more money into them. They’re taking huge gambles financially, and the way to offset that gamble is to ensure that the entertainment they’re selling appeals to as many people as possible. This approach, of course, dilutes the originality of the content. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. In other words, they alienate the actual film fans. Instead of making ten films that target different, more niche markets, they make one movie for the price of ten and bet it all.

The truth is that independent film is far from dead. In fact, it’s thriving like never before thanks to the technological resources at the disposal of hungry, young filmmakers these days. They are overwhelming and strikingly affordable. Behold the microbudget feature. Anyone with the right stuff can make a movie these days with production values that were simply unattainable just a few years ago. The stigma that was once attached to movies with budgets this low is no longer there—one can make a movie for peanuts and make it look like a million bucks. The barriers to making a feature film, and consequently announcing yourself as a filmmaker in this industry, have never been easier to overcome.

While this is encouraging, no doubt, this has lead to a surplus of low-budget films living out there in the world. For the consumer, there’s a deluge of movies to choose from, many of which have little-to-nothing in the way of traditional marketing. And, while the filmmakers’ methods of directing and producing films have changed, the industry’s method of buying and distributing them has, essentially, remained the same. This has lead to a business model for microbudget filmmakers that precludes them from making a living wage from their films. Ted Hope recently stated, “Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare.” There are approximately 141,000,000 jobs in the United States; approximately 100,000 of them are film directing jobs. Working directors make up about .0709 percent of the workforce. If more and more of the movies being made are microbudgets, that means a director’s salary is accordingly micro, if they have a salary at all. Therefore, the potential payoff rests on the distribution of the film, but getting your film distributed through the conventional channels may not lead to much of a payoff for the filmmaker.

The good news is that do-it-yourself distribution has not only gotten easier, but it’s quickly becoming an accepted practice. If the filmmakers are in charge of promoting their own films, why let a traditional distributor profit from your hard work when you can distribute yourself digitally through an assortment of online outlets and recoup the profits directly? This is an important question to ask if you’re planning on raising money for your own microbudget. DIY has never been easier, or more professional looking, as it is right now.

Yes, the market is more competitive—everyone with an iPhone can, technically, make a movie. And now that studios aren’t funding indies, you have major creative forces in the entertainment industry turning to microbudgets themselves: M. Night Shyamalan is making a microbudget, Spike Lee raised the money for his last movie on Kickstarter, and Mark Duplass just produced a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. However, this is what’s important to remember: what matters is the value of the idea—of the story—not the money it took to bring that idea to the screen. That’s what art is. Art is valued by the painting within the golden frame, not the golden frame itself.

DETOUR-CrewPhotoAs I wrote in my book, DETOUR: Hollywood, “In the end, our purpose as filmmakers is akin to the purpose of the railroad, an apt metaphor that never ceases to disappoint in times of crisscrossing articulations: we are just human beings trying to connect…and it is story that connects us.” My advice: make your movie. But be sure to make it using your own unique voice. Be bold, don’t try to fit in, and maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will take notice.

***

DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is available in Paperback and Kindle:

http://www.amazon.com/DETOUR-Hollywood-Direct-Microbudget-matter/dp/0985188634

Why “Whiplash” Won an Oscar for Best Editing

whiplash (n):
1. the lash of a whip.
2. an abrupt snapping motion or change of direction resembling the lash of a whip.
3. a neck injury caused by a sudden jerking backward, forward, or both, of the head: Whiplash resulted when their car was struck from behind.

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“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle and edited by Tom Cross, was a hit at Sundance and most recently made a splash at the 87th Academy Awards with 5 nominations and 3 wins — one of those wins going to Tom Cross for editing the film. Filmmaking is an organic process: the film is a beast you’re trying to domesticate by taking it out of the page and placing it onto the screen. The idea dies many deaths: first when it is committed to paper; then when it is filmed; then once again when it is edited. I believe it was Bresson who used this metaphor. Each step is, in itself, a rewrite. The editing process, in many ways, is the final rewrite of the film. And it could make or break it before the light of the projector brings the idea back to life again.

If these are the three core parts of filmmaking, writing (pre-production), directing (production) and editing (post-production), one might argue that the role of the editor is equally important as the role of the writer and the role of the director. Editing isn’t just snipping the footage and glueing one shot together with the next; however, if done right, it should seem like the film wasn’t edited at all. The editing should seem invisible on the surface, but underneath each and every edit should affect our subconscious experience of the film. It should manipulate our emotions and deliver the theme of the movie into our brains without us knowing it — at least upon first viewing.

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The “theme” is the universal idea that threads its way through a movie. It’s often the lesson we learn at the end of the story. It is critical for the filmmaker to identify the theme before making the film; it’s perhaps the most important thing a filmmaker can do in pre-production. The theme of the film is not the plot (which is usually summarized in the logline), but rather the idea that drives the plot.

What is the theme of “Whiplash?” Let’s let the editing tell us.

The film opens with the sound of snare drum hits under a black screen. It’s a building “march” reminiscent of antiquated military drum corps keeping soldiers in time, except this beat gets faster, faster and faster. As the beat concludes, the first shot is revealed to us. It’s a long shot that dollies through a hallway toward our main character, Andrew Neimann, played by Miles Teller.

He’s playing alone; he’s on his time, no one else’s.

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Until, we are introduced to Dr. Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-Winning performance. In a movie that’s filled with precise, and often rapid-fire, editing, the first shot is notable for its wholeness. It only cuts when Fletcher enters the room, and enters Andrew’s life — as far as we can tell, Andrew’s life on screen did not necessitate a single edit…until he met Fletcher. In the first half of the film, Fletcher is in control of Andrew; how do the filmmakers underscore this? Fletcher is also in control of the edit itself.

In the scene in the movie theater, where we are first introduced to Andrew’s passive-to-a-fault father, we listen to their following dialogue:

Father: When you get to be my age, you have perspective.
Son: I don’t want perspective.

Often, in a well-written script, a supporting character will either state, or hint at, the theme of the movie in the first 5 minutes of the film. In this scene, his father does just that. What does Andrew want? One who does not want perspective, wants to live — and see the world — in the moment, in the time he is in now, neither faster or slower, but in time that is his.

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The insert (or “detail shot”) of sheet music being opened and placed onto the music stand is faster than the actions Andrew performs in his medium close-up profile shot. By a hair. The action from one shot to the next doesn’t quite match –- the “music” is ahead of him. In the following scene, he places a picture of Buddy Rich on the wall in front of the drums, ahead of him –- he aspires to be as good as his idol, but is behind.

After Dr. Fletcher decides to give Andrew a shot, he wakes up at 6:03 on the day of the band’s rehearsal, 3 minutes after he was told to be there. He is behind; in fact, he is even filmed behind-the-time:

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However, after rushing to get to the studio, he realizes that he is early — by 3 hours. He was manipulated, leading him, and us, to question: should he trust Fletcher’s version of “time?”

Fletcher walks in at 9:00 am precisely as the second hand hits the number 12. His footsteps are noticeable, the clacks against the floor evenly timed. After Fletcher boosts Andrew’s morale, telling him that he’s “here for a reason,” Andrew re-enters the rehearsal space in slow-motion. He gets behind the drums, also shot in slow-motion, until Fletcher re-enters the room, which resets the film into normal motion. Fletcher has intentionally relaxed Andrew, setting his mind and body into slow-motion, before entering the room himself and bringing the student up to his speed…quickly.

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“Not my tempo,” Fletcher repeats.

In the scene that won J.K. Simmons his Oscar, Dr. Fletcher tests Andrew’s sense of timing. Is he rushing? Or is he dragging? Rushing, or dragging, or rushing, or dragging? Andrew jumps the cue, rushing it. What is he rushing or dragging?

Andrew promises to be on Fletcher’s time. Fletcher calls him a “rusher.” He is a rusher — his ambition seeks to rush him to greatness — however, his drumming ability is dragging.

Inside of his dorm room, the sound of drumming underscores the scene. As Andrew lets his father’s call go to voicemail, the playing of drums in the future seeps into his present, bringing us into the next scene of him copying the sheet music to “Whiplash” and practicing the drums. The editing says he’s trying to catch-up to himself, to his aspirations.

However, the drumming he performs himself is not in time with the drumming (the double-time swing of the ride cymbal) that plays under the scenes. There’s a perfect tempo in his head that he’s trying to attain; and he’ll shed blood to attain it. It’s interesting to note that while his drumming is off, the editor chooses to place cuts of Andrew placing band-aids on his hand that are in perfect rhythm with the timing of the ride cymbal –-

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Andrew’s desire to succeed is in the right time, along with his willingness to sacrifice his physical health, but his talent is not.

The Overbrook Competition: The Midpoint of the film (in screenwriting terms, the point-of-no-return for the main character):

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Andrew loses the core drummer’s sheet music (either by accident, or intentionally — the reality of how he lost it is ambiguous) and is forced to take over, since he has the song memorized. He helps his band win the competition and, as a result, becomes their core drummer.

After this moment of triumph for Andrew, this validation of his talent, he endures an awkward dinner with his extended family. Andrew’s announcement that he’s the new core drummer gets upstaged by his cousins, as their mother boasts of their achievements. No one seems to grasp the importance of Andrew’s achievement (at least, the achievement as he sees it in his own mind). As the conversation moves on, Andrew doesn’t: the camera remains on him, just as his mind remains on his accomplishment, an accomplishment no one seems to understand.

He interrupts his family’s conversation: “It’s Division 3,” belittling his cousin’s accomplishment. He finally gets everyone’s attention with his blunt and impolite manners. Once he does, every single line and physical reaction that Andrew delivers is cut to immediately before he delivers it. The timing is perfect — it’s his timing — and everyone else is following his tempo. The supporting characters deliver their lines back at him as though they’re hitting tennis balls back at him.

Andrew is controlling the conversation, and the editing emphasizes that.

After the Midpoint of the film, Fletcher is well aware of his student’s point-of-no-return, his commitment to this band, and he exploits it. He begins pushing him to the limit by bringing in a new player. With regard to the blocking, the scene starts with Fletcher sitting and Andrew standing — higher than Fletcher — and ends with Andrew sitting behind the drums — lower than Fletcher — which is emphasized in a high angle shot over Fletcher’s shoulder.

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Dr. Fletcher has reasserted his control over Andrew.

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Following this scene, is the second (and “last”) date with his girlfriend (it is important to note that this is the first time we’ve seen them together since their first date).

Andrew is breaking up with her, before it feels to us he’s even really gone out with her. He describes their future; how he must dedicate himself to his drumming, and he articulates how he’ll eventually come to resent her for wanting to spend more and more time with him. Therefore, his conclusion is that they should preemptively break it off before any of this terrible, and inevitable, stuff happens. He delivers his lines extremely quickly — he’s rushing it — warning her that they’ll end up hating each other when she eventually asks him to quit the drums.

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The entire B-Story (often the love story) of the film has been relegated to two scenes: the beginning of their relationship, and the end of their relationship. Both Andrew, and the filmmakers, have skipped over their entire courtship. Sometimes the moments left off the screen are just as, if not more important, than the scenes shown on the screen.

The couple’s time together is not in the same timeline as Andrew’s pursuit of drumming, his quest to become one of the greats.

Mirroring the montage sequence at the beginning of the film, music prelaps this scene between him and his girlfriend, leading us into the next scene of Andrew practicing. However, unlike before, the music consists only of bass and strings, no drums. Andrew is providing the only sounds of drumming —

He is starting to define his own rhythm.

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During the brutal rotation of drummers, Andrew finally gets his tempo, he finally nails it. Fletcher keeps yelling at him: “Faster, faster, faster…” as he destroys the drums and equipment around him, while Andrew destroys his hands. “Keep playing, keep playing…Don’t stop!”

Andrew earns the part; and after being wound up faster, faster, faster, he walks away from rehearsal in slow-motion.

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The Dunellen Competition: The bus that Andrew is riding on breaks down. While rushing to find an alternative form of transportation, he rents a car and inadvertently leaves his drumsticks behind. In an attempt to retrieve the sticks and get back in time for the competition, he recklessly speeds through an intersection and gets into a horrific accident. Why? Well, because he’s rushing. In this sequence, the cuts quicken — in rapid-fire succession — arriving at the images before Andrew does (they’re one step ahead of him).

HE IS LATE; he knows it, and we know it.

He is trying to catch-up with Fletcher’s time, with the time of potential greatness. When the accident occurs, time is literally turned upside-down — as conveyed by the clock being upside-down in the frame:

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The effect, of course, is that it looks as though time is counting backwards.

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Andrew’s progress has gone backwards, in one moment of hubris and thoughtless behavior.

[We are about to get into some major spoiler territory, so I caution reading forward if you haven’t seen the film.]

After fighting Fletcher, both physically and legally, which ultimately leads to his teacher’s dismissal from Shaffer Conservatory, Andrew attempts to live a normal life — which is a life without drumming. He works a job, he watches movies with his Dad again; however, when we see him walking in the street eating a slice of pizza, he still hears the siren call of the drums. He can’t escape it. The sounds of a street musician beating on buckets catches his, and our, attention, and operates as an act of The Fates — it leads him around the corner to the very nightclub where Terence Fletcher is playing.

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It’s as though Andrew’s life lacks music, lacks its “fix,” without Fletcher, the “pusher.”

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In the club, the two men share a conversation: Fletcher explains that he was teaching at Shaffer to “push people beyond what’s expected of them.” It’s an absolute necessity; otherwise, he’d be depriving the world of the next great musician. The two decide to leave the past to the past, which results in Andrew deciding to play in his band once again.

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At the climactic JVC Jazz Concert, the show starts with a new tune: “Upswinging.”

However, and this is the biggest “however” of the movie, Andrew soon realizes he’s been tricked by Fletcher: he doesn’t know the song, nor has he been provided with the sheet music for it. As the song kicks in, and the other musicians play their parts, he has to keep up…or not…and start his own beat.

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Andrew crumples at the challenge, unable to play anything; in fact, he plays his worst drumming in the entire film at this climactic moment — a moment that Fletcher cautions the musicians earlier can either make or break a career.

After Andrew is humiliated, bringing the rendition to a resounding halt and retreating from the stage, he decides to do a 180 and walk right back out there. He gets behind the drums, undermines Fletcher’s authority as conductor and begins his own rhythm. He establishes his own tempo, which the editor, Tom Cross, punctuates by jump-cutting 3 successive times, getting closer and closer to Andrew, closer and closer to the rhythm he has created for Fletcher, for the musicians, and for everyone watching and listening (in the concert hall and in the movie theater).

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Andrew is now in complete command of the camera and editing — just as he’s controlling Fletcher and every other musician on that stage, his performance is controlling the filmmakers.

In a movie crafted with such precise thought and motivation, this is the perfect ending:

All of Chazelle’s and Cross’s filmmaking tools have been usurped by Andrew behind the drums. We are all in his time, and the viewer must watch and listen according to his time from this point forward. The film does not cut before or after moments; it cuts ON THE TIME. ON ANDREW’S TIME. When the camera whips back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher, the movie fulfills the promise of its premise: Andrew and Fletcher become in sync; they find the same tempo; the camera moves suggest equilibrium and equality between these two characters. It’s notable, to say the least, that in a movie called “Whiplash,” Chazelle and Cross reserve use of the “whip pan” until the very end of the film.

When the song “Caravan” is finally over, Andrew keeps playing — he does not relinquish control of the stage back over to Fletcher. When Fletcher leans over Andrew and asks “What are you doing, man?” Andrew says, “I’ll cue you.”

Andrew is running the show; he has caught greatness; greatness is control of him and it’s best that both of them step out of the way and let it play out –-

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The music drops out, time slows down…or does it speed up?

Cross presents us with a mixture of slow-motion and fast-motion shots, mostly extreme close-ups of bits and pieces of movements, limbs, drum equipment — i.e. not the whole picture, pieces of the picture. Time and space do not matter anymore because Andrew is finally, and fully, existing in the moment. He has achieved what he has been chasing after this entire time, what Fletcher has been pushing him to become: he has become a vehicle for greatness and is letting what is destined to be play out in real time in front of the audience.

At the end of his solo, Andrew looks up at his teacher, and for the first time, when it cuts to Fletcher’s eyes, he is shot in slow-motion as he watches his student, nodding in approval of his apprentice’s performance. When it cuts back to Andrew, he is shot at a normal frame rate (or a rate that is not noticeably as slow), but when we cut back to Fletcher, his coverage is still in slow-motion —

Andrew has now defined Fletcher’s tempo.

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The world of the film, which was once Fletcher’s tempo, now exists within Andrew’s tempo.

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Andrew has finally caught up to himself — he’s found his time, he’s found his rhythm in this world, and it is entirely unique, entirely his own, and not determined by anyone else. In a sense, he’s back to the beginning, in that first shot before Fletcher stepped into his life: he’s playing alone; he’s on his time, no one else’s. But, now he is great. And to become great, he ultimately had to reach inside himself and find that greatness.

We all must aspire to find our own time, our own rhythm, inside of ourselves: that is the theme of “Whiplash.”

The effect that Fletcher (and the Fletchers in our own lives, should we be either cursed or blessed to have one in our lives) had on Andrew accomplishing his goal (and have on us accomplishing ours) is a question for the cinematic ages.

For more on the importance of “theme” in filmmaking, take a look at my book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter):

www.amazon.com/DETOUR-Hollywood-Direct-Microbudget-matter/dp/0985188634

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache