riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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A New Lens on Life

Earlier this year I bought a used Canon 5D MII. Best decision ever. I’ve actually never owned a *real* camera, one that takes super nice photos, where you can control things. There are obviously more advanced cameras than this one out there, but the Canon 5D MII is a Very Good Camera.

Not only does it take gorgeous photos, but it also shoots beautiful video. When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked with professional camera people, and rarely shot my own footage. The fact that I can shoot video now is significant. It gives me a freedom I haven’t experienced in a long time. With this camera, I am re-training my eyes, learning a new instrument, practicing how to capture the world around me with both still and moving images.

It’s by far the healthiest move I’ve made in a long time.

Here are some still images from the past few months… I’ll post videos in the next post.


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Who Is Responsible for the Death of Sarah Jones?

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

Have you been following the accounts of the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones? If not, read this Hollywood Reporter article, which details for the first time how the incident unfolded using descriptions from other crew members who witnessed it. Warning: reading this article will make you queasy with disgust and anger. It did me. And like many in the film industry and beyond, I keep wondering how in the hell did this happen? And who is responsible? Is it the Director? Producer? Unit Production Manager? Assistant Director? Location Manager? All of the above?

There are two schools of thought on who is ultimately responsible for a film. The first is that the director is responsible because he (or she) is the film version of the Ship Captain, War General, Leader of the Free World, i.e. the person with whom the buck stops. At the beginning of most movies there is title that says, “A (director’s name) Film.” And if a film bombs, usually the director gets the brunt of the blame.

The other school of thought is that the producer is ultimately responsible for a film. After all, it’s the producer who accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture, the producer who finds the money, and the producer who can hire and fire the director, the actors and just about anyone else. If the film is a studio movie, the only one who can fire the producer is the studio. If the film is an independent, most likely, no one can fire the producer.

But a film is the director’s vision. The director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision [Wikipedia]This means once a film is put into production every creative decision comes from the director. He consults with the department heads, but the director has the final creative word.  

Then again, the producer (or studio) has the final financial word.  A Unit Production Manager is usually hired by a film producer or television producer and is responsible for managing the production and regulating the costs of delivering the expected film or television show on budget at the end of principal photography [Wikipedia].

Let’s look at it from another angle. Before that fateful day two weeks ago when the crew of Midnight Rider assembled to shoot a dream sequence, this is what probably happened in the days leading up:

– The location manager scouted more than one train tracks and took pictures of each to show the director.

– The director chose the tracks that run over a 110-year-old bridge over the Altamaha River, in Wayne County, Georgia. At this point, if not before, the location manager would have informed him, “These are live train tracks.” To which, the director probably replied, “I want to shoot there. Figure it out.”

– The location manager attempted to get a location permit for those tracks. The permit was denied (most likely because it’s a live train track).

– The location manager informed the director that the permit was denied.

– The director, in consultation with the producer(s), assistant director and/or cinematographer, decided only those tracks would do and suggested, “Let’s shoot there anyway, guerilla-style.” (According to Hollywood Reporter article, he’s done this before.)

– The producer then approved this decision to shoot on a live train track without a permit.

– The crew was informed the morning of the shoot where they’d be filming that day, and what they should do in event a train came hurtling towards them, i.e. “run for your life.”

On top of that, these additional things DID NOT happen:

– The producer didn’t ask for a schedule of the trains that use those tracks, or calculate how often they come through.

– The producer didn’t inform the train company there would be a film crew on the tracks that day.

– The producer didn’t insist a production assistant was stationed a few miles away to keep a look out for approaching trains (which might have given the crew more than 60 seconds to get out-of-the-way).

– The producer didn’t give the crew a choice of whether or not to participate in this risky scheme.

– The producer didn’t hire a set medic or railway safety personnel (the latter, probably because he knew they had no permit). 

The bottom line is they never should have been there in the first place. The fact that they went ahead anyway and took no extra precautions is what really gets me. It’s unthinkable and unforgivable because it could have been avoided. If only someone had said, “No film or director’s vision is worth putting people’s lives at risk. These are not the only train tracks in Georgia. Let’s shoot somewhere else.” (I know for a fact that every producer I’ve ever worked with would have absolutely said this to me.)

Time will tell who is ultimately held accountable for this tragic fiasco. The director Randall Miller is also listed as producer, along with 11 other producers, co-producers and executive producers. 

Meanwhile, a bright, energetic, hard-working young lady is dead — and for what? 

RIP Sarah Jones.


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Words To Remember: Lights, Camera, Action!

Ironic that today’s Daily Post is about filmmaking. If you were involved in a movie, would you rather be the director, the producer, or the lead performer? (Note: you can’t be the writer!). I actually AM a director, or at least I was. I haven’t directed anything since 2010, which seems like a distant memory.  My last project – a music video – was completed the day before my late husband Kaz discovered he had a brain tumor. Since then, I’ve been writing, but not directing. What’s the difference?

For starters, writing is solitary. Most of us write alone, or rather with the voices in our head to keep us company. Directing is something you must do with others. Like the captain of a ship or a general at war, directing requires not only interacting with real people, but also leading them. It also means “acting” like a director. 

A well-known director once told me, “Directing is at least 75% performance.” Writers usually only have to perform before they write (when they’re pitching), or after they write (when they’re on a press junket for their work), but rarely while they’re actually writing. Directors, on the other hand, are almost always “on,” whether with investors, agents, actors, the crew, producers, studio executives, festival audiences, reporters, and so on. The same director who said directing was performance also once remarked, “How in the world does one do this job without alcohol or drugs?”

Secondly, writing costs nothing. All you need is time, a computer or typewriter, or pen and paper. If you can’t afford a pen and paper, you could write on a free computer at the library and use email to save your work. Or I suppose you could whittle a stick and use blackberry juice as ink like Solomon Northup‘s character in 12 Years a Slave. The point is you can write with absolutely no money.  

You cannot, however, direct a film with no money – even if everything is donated, you’re shooting in your own home and not paying anyone,  money will be spent. There have been cases of people making films with as little as $7,000 (Robert Rodriguez’s first film El Mariachi), but still… that’s $7,000 and a WHOLE LOT of energy to call in all the favors you need to complete the film, favors worth tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars.  As a former professor once said, “The cheapest way to make a movie is to write one.”

Third, the writing process affords flexibility, in the sense that you can change things. Your changes will have ripple effects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them. Directing, on the other hand, requires commitment to the blueprint (i.e. the script) and laser focus to keep all the moving parts together in your head (especially when shooting out-of-order). You can change things here and there, but you can’t veer too far, especially once you’ve started filming. For example, you can’t change the sex of a character, or the tone of a movie, mid-way through production (unless that’s part of the story). You have to be flexible in other ways, but not in the same ways as the writer.

So, directing requires communication, performance, money, focus, and massive amounts of creative, mental and physical energy, none of which I’ve had much of in the past few years. I’ve gone from being a caregiver to a grieving widow, and now find myself in the process of redefining myself, both personally and professionally. I’m not the same person I was before Kaz. I’m not the same person I was when he was alive, or shortly after he died. I’m a combination of all of the above and something more, something new.

I’ve been re-editing my director’s reel over the last few months, and it’s been a great exercise in reflection, like a mirror to my past. Reviewing the films I wrote, directed and obsessed over for long periods. Remembering those moments and projects about which I felt such passion. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been challenging to feel that kind of white-hot passion again. Though I do feel myself slowly being drawn to it, like to a distant fire on the horizon of a very long night.

To answer the original question, if I were involved – when I am involved in a movie again – I will definitely be the director. Even though I haven’t done it in years, I know I still have it. I love telling stories with images and sounds. I love working with actors and other professionals, each department providing its own unique, delicious ingredient to the overall piece. I adore the editing process, which feels most like the writing progress, solitary (save for your editor), flexible, and terribly creative. There’s a reason why so many of us say, “I’ll fix it in post.”

When I get nervous about my hiatus I remember that Stanley Kubrick took 7 years between The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and even longer between the latter and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Terrence Malick took 20 years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998)his second and third films respectively. They certainly didn’t stop being directors just because they weren’t actively directing.  No doubt when they returned to the director’s chair, their life experiences made them better directors.

I look forward to testing that theory. The chair awaits.

skd283023sdc


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How To Lose “The Coat of Desperation”

It’s been two weeks since my last post. Life, class, writing, friends in town, sick puppy, and other general distractions have kept me away, but everything is good. In fact, I’ve learned some things these past few weeks from a variety of sources, beginning with director/producer Ava DuVernay‘s incredibly generous, wisdom-filled keynote address to the 2013 Film Independent Forum on Sunday, October 27 (watch full clip here).

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

If you haven’t heard of Ava DuVernay, don’t worry. You will soon. She has already made several feature films, including I Will Follow which Roger Ebert described as “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of loved one;” and Middle of Nowhere, for which she won the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the first African-American woman to do so. She recently directed an episode of ABC’s Scandal, and is slated to direct the upcoming Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma.

She also has a distribution company called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), whose mission is to empower Black independent filmmakers with collaborative, simultaneous, theatrical distribution in multiple markets. [I admit, I have not seen Ms. DuVernay’s films yet (I fell behind in a lot of movie/TV watching the past few years). But they are now at the top of my Netflix queue, and I will be following everything she does from hereon.]

If it sounds like I’m gushing, I am! And I’m not the only one who felt a shot of adrenaline watching this talk. Like the best words of wisdom, Ms. DuVernay’s advice on October 27 was geared towards a specific crowd (filmmakers), but also universally applicable.

She begins by encouraging the audience to live Tweet her speech. “It’s important to share what happens in rooms like these, beyond rooms like these.” She commends the audience for being there, saying it’s good to channel inquisitive energy into events, workshops, seminars and other “rooms with like-minded people.” She reminds us why Los Angeles is such a great place to be. “There’s so much you can get your hands on.”

She then cheekily explains what she’s wearing and why.  Her “directing uniform” consists of glasses, layering a thermal shirt with a hipster t-shirt (“embrace your nerd-dom”), a jacket, a hat (“don’t touch my hair”), and most importantly comfortable shoes (“these shoes are from Rite-Aid”).  In this uniform she is who she feels she should be. She also feels like this because she took off something three years ago that was preventing her from reaching her full potential.

She took off her coat of desperation

What is the coat of desperation? 

It’s the aura that surrounds you when you approach people you admire with questions like, ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can you read my script?’ ‘Can I take you to coffee?’ ‘Can I pick your brain?’

It’s when you come from a place of ‘what can you do for me?’ instead of a place of empowerment. Taking off this coat is the only way to actually achieve your dreams and goals. But how do you do it? 

Ms. DuVernay’s advice is simple:

Stop asking people for things! Instead, tell them what you’re doing.

Yearning and Non-Action = Depressing and Stagnate (repellant)

Yearning and Action = Passion and Movement (magnet)

Stop spending time thinking about what you don’t have and focus on what you do have.

Ask yourself ‘what can I do?’ And ‘Who wants to come along for the ride?’ People want to be on a moving train. Be on the ‘yo, I’m making films’ train.

Do the work and rise above the chatter.

You don’t need to go to film school as long as you educate yourself. Watch director’s commentaries, attend workshops, read books, and make your own films.

Apply to labs, grants, seminars, etc. but don’t wait to be accepted to move forward (Ms. DuVernay never won a lab or grant and she applied to them all).

You should be thinking about what happens after the film is made, before you make it.

Failure can teach you who you are.

Best quote:  “I have more mentors now since I stopped asking for them. A mentor is someone who cares for you – and you can’t go up to someone and ask them to care for you.”

Best goal:  “I want to be old and making films like Clint Eastwood. I want to be like Werner Herzog and have so many films I can’t remember all their names.”

Sounds good to me!

Can you relate to the Coat of Desperation? To taking it off?!


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The Butler: A Conflicted Review

I’m in Brooklyn at the moment, visiting family and getting a boost of much-needed energy.  I met up with my father and got to drive the Porsche. On Sunday I’m having brunch with freelance journalist, memoir author and fellow blogger, Caitlin Kelly of Broadside. But this post is about none of the above because I just saw Lee Daniel’s movie The Butler.

[photo source: imdb.com]

[photo source: imdb.com]

The Butler is loosely based on the real-life story of long-time White House butler Eugene Allen who served every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. It was directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious, The Paperboy, Shadowboxer, and produced Monster’s Ball, in addition to the aforementioned films. It shows the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of the White House butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son Louis Gaines, who participates in sit-ins, freedom bus rides, marches, the Panther Party and then traditional politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for anything that educates and/or enlightens us on the Civil Rights Movement. But is there anything in this film we haven’t seen before? No, there is not. Is this a new take on the Civil Rights Movement? No, it is not.

The only difference between this film and other films about the Civil Rights Movement is that the main character witnesses it from within the White House. While he’s serving tea, cookies, breakfast and lunch, he overhears his various bosses discuss, argue and make decisions about policies that will affect his and millions of other African Americans’ lives. This is difficult to watch because the entire time he cannot speak or react in any way. In fact, he is instructed to be “invisible.”

And therein lies the rub.  The main character is a passive Black man. His goal in the film is basically to not lose his job, to not rock the boat, to not offend his bosses or do anything even remotely controversial.

If my father had seen this movie, he would have probably walked out. Or he would have been mumbling under his breath the whole time, “This is bullshit,” and we would have been shushing him. I’m not going to judge the main character like my father would. He was a butler and there was dignity in not only his work, but also his role as a father and husband. But I do take issue with the producers. Why was this film made? What did it add to the conversation about race? How many times have we seen the African American experience told from this point of view? It’s similar to always seeing the Jewish experience told from the Holocaust point of view. The victim point of view.

This isn’t to say that the point of view isn’t valid or shouldn’t be expressed. I just don’t know that we need to see yet another rendition of a passive Black male unable or unwilling to do anything to change his genuinely painful situation. And I find it especially frustrating that this was the hero’s point of view. In my opinion, it would have been far more interesting and inspiring to tell this story from the son’s point of view on the front lines of the movement. He was the only active character.

If you think I’m being harsh, check out Harry Lennix‘s take on the film (slightly edited):

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

  “… Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “ni**erfies” it. He “ni**ers” it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well… historical porn. I refused.”

Unlike Harry, I did go further than the first five minutes and I actually do recommend people see the film. Even though I had issues with it, I didn’t totally not enjoy it. It is well-made, has an all-star cast, strong performances and solid direction. Oprah Winfrey’s performance is absolutely delicious and reminds me of what a great actress she is. Also, the father-son relationship and conflict in the film is genuinely compelling.

But when it was over and my 11 year old niece turned to me and asked, “So, did you like it?” I had to pause. “Yes and No,” I told her. Yes… and no. Then we spent the rest of the walk home discussing why.

Have you seen The Butler? What did you think?

Related articles:

www.bellenews.com/search/cecil-gaines-wikipedia/#ixzz2dVrf8bDI

http://www.blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/harry-lennixs-take-on-lee-daniels-the-butler-and-it-aint-pretty


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Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week I am reblogging this incredibly generous and informative article written by director Danny Boyle for Moviemaker.com. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Boyle is the director of such films as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. People are sharing this article via Twitter and Facebook (how I learned of it). I’m sharing it here so we can talk amongst ourselves. Please note, everything from hereon comes from Danny Boyle, not me. Enjoy!!

1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

Full article (with pictures) here:
http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/danny-boyle-15-golden-rules-filmmaking/

Happy creating!


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Lessons From ‘THE GODFATHER’

godfather

In this day and age, I think it’s safe to say that most people have either seen or at least heard of the film THE GODFATHER, starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale and Diane Keaton, along with a host of other stellar actors. It was released in 1972, directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the book THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo, and produced by Paramount Pictures, which was being run by Robert Evans at the time.

Everything about this movie is legendary. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay Adaptation (Puzo and Coppola). It was the first “crime family drama” of its kind. Its characters, shooting style, music and dialogue all became part of our national consciousness and filmmaking history. Brando’s performance is still considered one of the best film performances ever, revered, mimicked and parodied the world over.

For those of us in the movie business, or who are film buffs, the making of the film is also legendary. In the biographical documentary THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, Robert Evans talks about some of the epic fights he had with Coppola before, during and after the shoot, and the enormous pressure he was under to make sure the film was a success for the financially ailing studio.

Last weekend, as I was dissecting my book and stitching it back together, I watched the film with the director’s commentary on so I could hear the other side of the story.

Now it’s difficult to imagine, but at the time Coppola wasn’t a famous director. He was an up-and-coming director and only 32 years old. He had a young wife and children. He didn’t get paid much and neither did anyone else on the film, which was made for 6.5 Million. Considering how much it grossed (approximately 133.6 Million domestic, 243.8 Million worldwide (www.boxofficemojo.com), the budget was miniscule.

To save money, Coppola had to get creative. Certain wide shots and long shots were filmed without the real actors, but with extras dressed to look like them, and the actors’ voices dubbed in later. Coppola used his own newborn baby, Sofia Coppola, for the infamous Baptism scene/sequence. He hired other family members to do the music and be extras. When he edited the movie, he lived in the “maid’s room” in James Caan’s 2-bedroom apartment.

The best part of the commentary is when he talks about his fears of getting fired, which were very real and lasted almost the entire time. It’s a strange Hollywood thing, but just because a studio hires you doesn’t mean they support or trust you. Coppola was faced with opposition to practically every decision he made: the actors, the music, the locations, the lighting, the editing… EVERYTHING.

At one point, he was so convinced he was getting the axe, he called Robert Evans’ secretary to ask if he should even go to set. She told him to go because they wouldn’t fire him mid-week (it was Wednesday), but on the weekend. He used the time to re-shoot a scene the studio had complained about, and fire the people on his team whom he considered “the traitors.” A pre-emptive strike, if you will. And it worked. Paramount was flustered and Coppola made it to another week.

There were times when he was so stressed, he didn’t know if he could keep going. There were times when he felt insecure. He remarks that when THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a high octane action-thriller, came out in 1971 (while he was editing) and was a huge hit, he was sure that no one would want to see his dark, slow movie with a whole lot of talking. Of course, now we know that he did keep going. But he overcame all those obstacles without knowing whether the film would do well. He overcame them by believing in himself.

According to Coppola, the moral of the story is that a director should trust his vision and stick to it. If he had caved to the demands of the studio, or his own doubts and fears, the film would have been totally different and most likely not a success. The choices he made were unpopular. He had to defend them tooth and nail. But in the end, those choices are what we remember about the film and why people like me, and many others, still watch and study it thirty years later.

And by the way, the horse head was real. They got it from a dog food company.

Happy creating!

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando