Saturday, September 30, 2006

Distraction

I am endlessly distracted from my novel.

Though I'm happy to now be over a hundred pages into the world of the aging, former Texas Ranger who is facing his final years in 1899 Arizona and California, I am still more happy, if only unconsciously, to avoid the world all together. I say unconscious because I typically discover the avoidance when I realize too late that I've spent my precious writing time doing bills, researching vitamins or reading another article on wildfires.

The latest distraction came by way of an email at work. The company was announcing a one-minute film competition. The winner would be awarded a gold commemorative coin, a noteworthy prize, but I was drawn to the contest for two opportunities: one, to share with the corporate culture where I spend my 9 to 5 a side of myself that I do not bring to ecommerce, and two, for the chance at yet another distraction. Moviemaking is storytelling and would throw me into artistic problem solving that is no less valuable than that which I do when working on the novel. Were the novel able to comment, however, it would call such a "movie" a penny-ante diversion at best. Novels can't speak, so I came up with Il Romantico (The Romantic).

The call to 60-second artists was straightforward. Submit a one minute film fulfilling certain technical standards that embraces the company's line of "everyday" wines, exploring the human side of enjoying Rosso and Bianco through humor, drama, and whatever creative impulse one should wish to pursue. Make it about people, seemed the most important requirement.

It was the shortest script I'd ever set out to write, and in fact, I never wrote a script at all, but went straight to the shot list. I wanted no dialogue, only action over music, purely visual, the roots of cinema, harking back to the silent era. Plus, mit out sound meant one less technical challenge to overcome. The key would be the people in it.

Having produced numerous fringe theater productions and small films, I know that when you don't have much in the way of resources, you should create something from the pool of the resources that you do have. Write with the castable actors in mind, two or three characters rather than ten, designate hand props rather than design sets, etc. For this movie, I knew I had my neighbor and her significant other who were willing to indulge me: Lynn and her partner Tom.

Tom is about to celebrate his 85th birthday. Every weekend, he drives up from the city, not just to be with Lynn, but to help her with everything from yard upkeep to home renovations. His energy is remarkable and a better sport one will never find - I recently helped him load rented kayaks onto the roof of his Volvo for a surprise birthday paddle Lynn had planned for a friend, and then cast him off for his first-ever paddle, upriver, into the wind. He is inspiring to anyone even remotely curious about growing older. He is not in the least bit elderly, but the epitome of an elder. He's also done a little acting.

Our shooting schedule was limited by the short time we had with Juan, our cinematographer who had to get to work, and the fact that we dilly-dallyied at the craft services table, elegantly crafted and diligently serviced by Linda Sue. So, we had to move more quickly through the shots than I would have liked. At the same time, I didn't want to rush Tom. Or Lynn, for that matter, who reluctantly agreed to play the part of Tom's oggetto di romanzesco when her preference was working behind the camera (which she did when she wasn't in a shot).

We shot in sequence for lighting considerations, and inevitably rushed through the final shots for the payoff scene in order to get Juan to work on time. I was dubious about the result, worried that we'd shot a movie I wouldn't be comfortable submitting. Fortunately, movies are made in the editing bay, and when Lynn and I finished putting it together, we realized we had something that was worth submitting, even though I didn't have the time to work with the actors on crucial moments; even though so much - from plastic santa lights to a live chicken - didn't make it into the final 60 seconds.

For me, the success of the production all came down to Tom. His charm and spirit carry story, though admittedly they are enhanced by the fact that, as Lynn pointed out, the movie could be a metaphor for his weekends in Napa. The true success, however, was not with the project, but with the reward it offered in the end: Tom's response. He was thrilled when he saw the final version. He was surprised and giddy and watched again and again into the wee hours. He even sent a note in the mail reiterating his enthusiasm and appreciation. All of this caught me unawares. I know now that it transformed a small project into one of the largest creative experiences of my life. That is not hyperbole. It moved beyond a short movie and became a more of gift, an unanticpated act of giving.
Here I thought it was my project. A distraction. Artistic problem solving. What more could one hope to learn from one's elders?
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Thank you to Rebecca for use of her images in this post, and for her expert chicken wrangling.

4 Comments:

Blogger Gerric Duncan said...

Jonathan,

A wonderful gift - thank you all. Tom is my new hero.

Gerric

October 05, 2006 3:34 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Foster said...

Thank you for your post and for choosing your heroes wisely!

October 06, 2006 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Carolyn Wood said...

Hi Jonathan,
Bruce referred us to your site as part of learning about blogs for our COMM 106 class.
I can totaly relate to your "Distraction" post. I battle with this issue almost daily. I can find all sorts of things to distract me from doing the most pressing thing I should do. I usually call it procrastination, but I like the word distraction better!

Carolyn

November 09, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Foster said...

"Distraction" implies less control and an opportunity to shirk some responsibility. "I would focus on my work, but that looks interesting right now..."

"Procrastination" sounds as though you are making more of a choice. "I don't want to work right now..."

Of course, the bottom line is, we must get to work!

November 09, 2006 8:31 PM  

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