Weeks Two and Three: July 20-31

Sunday again, after two weeks that were physically far less demanding than the first but a greater emotional challenge–the kind of week I live for with this film. I had promised to write about acting and the “jigsaw puzzle effect,” so here goes.

I’m not particularly fond of jigsaw puzzles. Every year we go on a family trip with several of my cousins to Bass Lake near Yosemite National Park (we won’t be there this year, thanks to Sweet Old World!). One of the regular activities of this trip is a huge jigsaw puzzle that everyone works on at different times throughout the week–everyone, that is, but me. I avoid it, because the task of fitting those five hundred or two thousand pieces together is so daunting to me that I react with immediate frustration.

But I have discovered that in filming Sweet Old World I am creating my own jigsaw puzzle, and to my surprise I like it! The simple explanation is that we are not filming the story in sequence–scene one, scene two, etc. Rather, we are grouping all of the scenes in each location and shooting them in the block of time we are located there. This is in fact the way almost all films are made in the U.S., for the obvious reason that the cost of constantly changing locations to be able to shoot the scenes in order is prohibitive.

(The wonderful filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who made Chop Shop–a film I was very inspired by and urge you to see–told me that in Europe it is much more common for films like ours to be made in sequence, because there is more money available for filmmakers to do that. But rarely if ever is it done here).

The result of course is that all of us have to create each scene seemingly out of nowhere, and it is often extremely disorienting. The process is like a dream where scenes and moments appear with no apparent connection to each other. We filmed the last scene of the film–a deeply emotional moment–last Wednesday morning, and the work that John Nielsen, who plays the father (Brian), had to do to get himself to that place was extremely difficult and taxing. He was exhausted the rest of the day, while we were filming scenes that take place much earlier in Brian’s life, before the traumatic events that lead to that last scene. It was, simply, a tremendous feat of acting on his part.

But here’s where the jigsaw puzzle comes in. While it would be more “logical” to be able to live the scenes of this film as they would have happened in life, we are instead creating pieces that will–or should–fit together in perfect harmony with the pieces that come before and after them. But there is no guarantee of that, so the puzzle gets deeper with each scene we shoot. Two scenes may fit perfectly well together on paper, but when you breathe life into them, when the actors make them their own and take them places you didn’t expect, then the puzzle begins to take a new shape. Maybe this piece fits better with the one that used to be five pieces away.

But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. What has happened is that the actors, through living their characters, have given the film it’s own life–and nothing could be more exciting. They have drawn out hidden truths, deep rivers of emotion, and surprising twists that open up a whole new landscape for this story–and fitting those new pieces together has now become an adventure and pleasure not unlike the one I know everyone else in my family feels as they find the pieces that fit in those monstrous jigsaw puzzles.

Which gets me to acting, and what I am learning every day.

But in order to write about acting, I first have to go into what this film is about. (Whenever that question comes up, “What is the film/song/book/poem/play/etc. about?” I always flash on an answer Bob Dylan gave to that question in a 1966 Playboy Magazine interview. When the exasperated interviewer asked him at the end to just tell us what his songs are about, he responded–and I’m paraphrasing here–“Well, some of them are about three minutes, some are about five minutes, and some are even about eight or nine minutes.” But I’m not Bob Dylan, so here’s my answer).

Sweet Old World is about learning to embrace your past, no matter how painful it may be. I don’t mean “Coming to terms” with it, because that expression has always felt confrontational to me. I mean really embracing it. It is part of your DNA, and informs your unique reality whether you accept or try to bury it. All of the people in my film have tried to bury their past–some intentionally and some because they had no other option. But when it comes back, as it inevitably will, the scabs they have formed get torn off and they face both the freedom and horror of opening themselves up and allowing their wounds to really heal.

I have never before directed actors. I have been a documentarian–both in my filmmaking and photography–and I have always seen the connection between finding the stories in people’s lives and creating fictional stories, but that has been pretty abstract to me. So when I begin this process the idea of working with actors was, frankly, terrifying.

But two years ago I began studying with Judith Weston, an acting and directing coach in Los Angeles. Judy has written two fantastic books–Directing Actors, and The Film Director’s Intuition, and she conducts regular workshops on rehearsal techniques, script analysis, and all of the other tools directors need. Before going on, I want to say categorically that if I had not met Judy and taken her workshops these past two years I would not be making this film today.

I won’t go into a lot of detail. You should read her books. But I will say that one critical reality she taught me is that there is no fundamental difference between working with actors and working with “documentary subjects,” between telling a documentary story and telling a fictional one. Both probe the reality that lives under the surface of our lives. Both seek to reveal the emotional truths that drive us.

With fiction, as well as documentary, the job of the director is to find the ways to free up actors to find and live the emotional reality of the scene they are playing. And when they do that, the scene may go in a direction you, the director, never even imagined. In short, they make the story their own.

I’ll give you one example that just floored me. One of the pivotal scenes in Sweet Old World is when Jimmie essentially wins Ethan’s heart. Ethan is the main character of the story, a talented musician who is aiming for Julliard. Jimmie, who is two years older than Ethan, is a wild kid who just showed up at school this year. Jimmie and Ethan have a past together, but at this point in the story it is not clear what that is. But Ethan is drawn to him and to the risky, dangerous life he embodies.

In this scene, Jimmie has just cold-cocked and gotten the best of a kid twice his size who owes him money and is refusing to pay. And in the process Jimmie needed Ethan to “give me a hand,” bringing him into his world (The scene takes place in the bathroom of a local hangout. I won’t say more, but trust me–you’ll love it). When it’s all over, Ethan and Jimmie are back among the other band kids, and all I knew was that Ethan would be both shocked and exhilarated, trying to process what he had just been a part of. But I really had no idea what form that would take.

So when we shot the scene, I simply asked Jacques Colimon (Ethan) to try to get Eric Peter-Kaiser’s (Jimmie) attention, to distract him. No dialogue. Not knowing what would happen, we began filming. And after maybe twenty seconds, Ethan caught Jimmie’s eye and they both started laughing. Just laughing, totally connected with each other. Turns out of course that neither of them had expected to do that either. It just happened, as spontaneous and real as any laugh could be. It said everything, and it was beautiful.

One thing I have always loved about the documentary process is the surprises. But this one is top on my list.

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