Gary Winick’s birthday is today. He died in 2011. Gary was the reason I returned to film making. I had decided to write fiction, because I couldn’t get any money for my films and I didn’t want to make the kind of films that I could get money for. I couldn’t stand to wait for permission to tell stories, waste my life waiting for that permission, and fiction was a way of continuing, so I had kind of shrugged and walked away–but only after a couple of very bad experiences in the film business. And one day Gary, who knew Angela, my first film, very well, called and asked me if I had anything that could be made for 250,000 dollars. He had set up Indigent, a company working through Bravo, making low budget movies with experienced filmmakers. All the heads of department owned a piece of the film. I told him I had some stories I could adapt. I had The Ballad of Jack and Rose (then called Rose and the Snake) as well but I wasn’t giving that precious story to the kind of nightmare production I envisioned we would have at that price. He read some of the stories and suggested we do three and we link them through the voice over. I wrote the script in two months. I kept asking him about this and that, things I wanted to do. He said, “You don’t understand. You can make the movie. You don’t need to ask me anything.” I mean, I had to have recognizable people in it, but not stars. But the script–the script was not constrained. I was free. That was such an amazing gift. We (My producer, Lemore Syvan, was very much responsible) went on to make the film in 16 days. When Gary and I went to Sundance, we both won prizes: his film, “Tadpole”, won best director, and “Personal Velocity” won best cinematography and the Grand Jury Prize. Without Gary I don’t know if I would ever have made another film;it was the success of Personal Velocity that allowed me to make The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and then I was back in the game. He had such generosity, such insight. He was able to extend his creativity to other people, to feel nourished by the success of his colleagues. He was a rare spirit. Happy Birthday, Gary.
The funny thing about the article in “Deadline Hollywood” announcing my upcoming collaboration with Greta Gerwig is, the description of the plot is entirely wrong. I was asked to talk about the film, and, not wanting to give the story away, I made something up in a bumbling sort of way, then saw it reprinted a good few times, and even critiqued, which is pretty funny. Well, I suppose the good news is, Maggie’s Plan is not a story about “the joys and pitfalls of trying to make your own way in New York City”.
I am, however, very excited to work with Greta, who is a unique talent in my mind, and we have some other wonderful casting soon to be announced.
I saw “Blue is the Warmest Color”. Leah Sedoux and Adele Exarchopoulos are sublime. Totally true and transparent. Beautifully realized script. But the director should have hired a lesbian to direct his love scenes. The actresses looked exhausted and confused, like they were in a fake orgasm marathon. The expert Kechiche seems to have had the door of “transcendent female sexuality” slammed in his face. Personally –and to be fair–I think that nudity has the potential to stymy all directors because it can lift the viewer from the narrative. Suddenly you’re in a documentary and all you’re doing as looking at the tits and vaginas (which are, reportedly, prosthetic in “Blue”). Unfortunately there is a trend, spear-headed, perhaps, by Ang Lee’s brilliant Lust/Caution, to demand more and more real sex from actors. One day soon an actor will be a wimp if he or she balks at full penetration. This lust for “reality” is actually making sex scenes less erotic, and it is a minefield in terms of the actors’ rights to dignity. I am not saying this in the spirit of prudery or even feminism. I had no moral qualms about the sex scenes in “Blue”–the actresses chose to allow themselves to enact them. Rather my problem is aesthetic and on the level of craft. I think they were shot with the unblinking eye of the pornographer, rather than the rest of the film, which, though it had me screaming for a medium shot as I entered the third hour, was shot through the lens of a poet.
I just watched a film called “Casting By”, about the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty and her influence on the next generation of casting directors, as well as the history of the art. It’s true that casting is a kind of art– without the right casting, a part is ruined, the story is derailed, and you can never have that chance again. The casting director is the person who culls the actors and brings the director the best choices for the role, after which the discussion begins and ultimately the director decides–but with much advice from the casting director, whose instinct the director relies on. Cindy Tolan is my long-term casting partner. She is probably my most intimate collaborator. My dread of miscasting is why I walk around with fear in my belly for months when I am trying to cast a film. Each day I try to fight off the senseless lists of actors who “mean something” in terms of their “numbers”. In other words, it is very hard to cast an actor or actress in a lead role who has not been in some kind of hit in Europe, because the investors want to know that even if your film flops here, it will make money over there. Naturally it makes sense that many people go to films because of the stars that are in them, but ultimately the predictions of success are just voodoo. Star vehicles can fail; unknown actors can rise to stardom overnight. That is in part what’s thrilling about casting.
To me the most important quality in an actor is something I perceive as transparency. The great actors are not imposing themselves on the viewer, they are not playing at anything. There is a kind of stillness in the best acting; the actor is allowing himself or herself to be infused by the spirit of the character. Even if the character’s rhthm is frenetic, there is some point of stillness deep inside, a clear pool of truth. To me, this quality is embodied in very few actors at any one moment in history.
I have been thinking about how much not to say. Explaining to my students that directing is different from conversation. A friend said the other day, “Just framing and casting is already a lot of directing.” That is a brilliant thought. That casting the actor, and then framing them, you have already made huge decisions and don’t necessarily need to “direct” the actor unless the scene needs to shift.
Just watched “Lust, Caution”. I think that Ang Lee is precise, emotional. He is a great artist. However I found the extreme graphic nature of the sex scenes a little distracting because all I could think of was whether they were really having sex. Sex scenes are hard. You go too far or you don’t go far enough. Either way unless it’s porn it’s fakery and even then it’s fakery. My favorite sex scene I ever shot is in “Angela”. I shot it from pretty far away and did no coverage. I felt like I shouldn’t be there at the time.
I wrote a screenplay based on an as-yet unfinished novel by my dear friend Karen Rinaldi. I am currently calling the screenplay “Maggie’s Plan”. Julianne Moore is attached to play one of the three main parts but I am still trying to figure out who will play Maggie herself. It has been a liberating experience in some ways, working from someone else’s book. I got the premise for free and so I saved a huge amount of time, and was able to spend time just creating characters and embellishing plot. Both Personal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee were books and films, so each project took between five and seven years to write the book, write the screenplay, produce the film, make the film. And since my last novel, Jacob’s Folly, took five years just to write, I feel I need a lighter writing experience. And something closer to a pure directorial experience. I can’t seem to expunge writing totally from the directing experience, and I don’t want to, yet there is something wonderful about this letting go.
I am so happy to read the latest blog post from an observant Jewish woman who says that I got the details of strictly observant Jewish life right in Jacob’s Folly. I was obsessive about this aspect of the book, having rabbis, scholars, and, perhaps most importantly, a real, observant, frum mother as consultants. For me, this was an alternate universe, a magic realm of sorts. Once I truly entered it, I was able to perceive the logic therein and to imagine the suffering that leaving the community would cause–as well as the impossibility, for Masha, of staying within its confines. It was so important to me not to blithely say, ‘assimilation is right, our modern way is the better way, freedom is all’. That is just as blind a way of looking at the world as a strictly religious way. Looked at from outside, any culture seems strange. Our own culture will seem absurd to people in two hundred years.
I got a text from an endocrinologist I know who happens to be a member of a book club in the Bronx and she asked me to come up there one night and talk to her book club. I’m going. I don’t know what’s gotten into me but with this book, I feel ready to read in every living room in the tristate area and beyond. About a hundred and twenty or more people came to the auditorium at the Boston Public Library last night to hear a conversation between me and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I couldn’t believe there were so many people there–thanks to Doris largely. I read a lot, passages that we had discussed. There were a lot of laughs and I just felt so amazed that people still care about books so much. It’s gotten me thinking about what reading actually is. It’s passive, in a sense, yet essentially active. It is an action of opening the mind. Without the reader’s participation, the words lie dead on the page. The reader turns the words into images and ideas. Anyway, I am just thinking about it. When you perform a book (whether the writer admits it to herself or not, reading aloud is performance) you go back to the more elemental form of writing and reading, like Homer traipsing from one village to another, singing his stories…
I’m on my way back from a week of readings and signings on the West Coast. Book peddling. It’s a release to perform the book now after years of being locked away with it. It’s easier to read outloud than my other books, maybe because I enjoy being Jacob so much. His joyful amorality, his wickedness, feel liberating. I really like connecting with the readers in person, but I still worry about going on too long and boring people. Yet I think in this time, when actual objects and face to face encounters are rarer, when our ideas are transmitted electronically much of the time, and our books are read off of tablets, the presence of an actual author turning paper pages is more valuable; it reminds people of the connection to the writer as they read, the cord that binds the two minds.
I am nervous. It seems so strange to have this story, which has been twisting around inside me for years, belonging to strangers now. That’s the beauty of it I suppose. Publishing is a balm to the loneliness of the writer.