Monday, July 27, 2009

Pleadings: The League/ JimD/ Alistair Interview

My relationship with the film "Pleadings" began, technically, in the Fall of '97 when I took a screen writing class and met JimD. JimD may not remember this, but I was reading comics before class began (I think "Preacher"), and he asked me what titles I was reading. He was a former comic enthusiast, and was happy to chat.

I found Jim to be an excellent sounding board for my own projects at the time, and we became quite chummy.

Jim would head off for law school at the end of that year, but we remained in touch.

While Jamie and I languished in Arizona, Jim sent me a copy of a screenplay he'd written. I wasn't entirely surprised he'd asked, as we'd taken the same screen-writing coursework, and I guess he knew I'd been trained to be honest with feedback, as he'd been trained to take or leave what I had to say.

We discussed characters and plot elements with which I agreed and with which I took exception. But I was very excited for Jim. He had a plan, he had a director, and he was ready to begin pre-production. It's a hugely unique situation for anyone to find themselves who claims to be interested in film production. Jim had recruited a long-time pal to come on board to direct, and the two were of a like mind on the project.

Prior to my return to Texas, Jim and Alistair completed shooting the film in Beaumont. I deeply regret not being available for the shoot, but them's the brakes.

As of this writing, the film has been published to DVD. I am unaware of further distribution plans, but hope that this post will remind local readers that I will be watching the film at League HQ on Saturday Evening, Aug. 1. We'll be breaking out the good stuff.

Always looking for good copy, I asked JimD to allow me to interview he and Alistair, via e-mail, on the topic of "Pleadings". Below, you will see our exchange.

At the time of the questionnaire, I had not seen the final cut of Pleadings, but had seen a fairly-final, locked cut about two years ago. I now hold in my hand a clam-shelled, lovely DVD. It includes a furiously written note by Jim D in which threatens me with bodily harm several times. The threats have nothing to do with the film.

I should note: I also wasn't sure if JimD and/ or Alistair would answer the questions. We got both. So, here's two responses per question.

1) Can you discuss a bit about how Alistair and Jim know one another? Had you collaborated previously on a project?

Jim: Alistair and I have known each other since 1989. We both attended the same middle school in Houston, Texas. We had not previously collaborated on a project, but we had always wanted to do so, and Pleadings offered us that opportunity.

Alistair: We've known each other since Junior High. Previous collaborations were limited to very minor music and newspaper related projects.

2) When did Jim begin the script? What was going on in your life at the time?

Jim: I began the script in February of 2002, just after taking the Texas bar exam. The initial idea for the film came on February 9, 2002, the day I graduated from Baylor Law in Waco, Texas. Alistair came up from Houston for the occasion. After the ceremony, but before the night's festivities were to ensure, Alistair, my brother Bert, and I decided we would make a trek to the Branch Davidian compound. (I will never forget that on the way there, our Internet directions led us a stray and we passed the last turn. There was a house that had a large sign on it that said "Don't Ask!" and a mile down from that we stopped to ask a farmer for directions. My brother walked up to him, and before he could say a single word, the farmer said, "You missed the turn."). There was very little there that was recognizable, but there was a memorial garden, a church, and a few structures which must have been lost during the fire. We also saw an old burned out bus (which we learned was not consumed by fire during the stand-off but a number of years later). There was something haunting and cinematic about the bus which prompted Alistair and I to brainstorm about collaborating on a film set in Waco. I had the bar exam in a few weeks, but I began to scribble down ideas at every opportunity. The first draft was probably circulated between Alistair and myself in late 2002 or early 2003, although the draft kept evolving up until the time we shot the film in the summer of 2004.

3) Were the characters there first, or the story?

Jim: Probably the characters. Initial scenes were drafted based on ideas for the characters, and I had a larger set of characters in play than ended up in the film. As scenes began to come together, I merged a few of the characters, which had the effect of making them more complex.

4) How did Alistair become involved? And what was his prior experience in film production?

Jim: Alistair was always involved from that first conversation in February of 2002. I know he studied film at Harvard and had written and created a few short films prior to directing Pleadings. I had previously seen one of his shorts, which was a black and white superhero film about a masked vigilante who felt compelled to venture out into the night to fight crime despite the misgivings of his wife. (You ought to email him and ask him a bit more - his email is [withheld]).

Alistair: First, my prior experience: I had always dabbled in low budget movie making, even when I was a kid I played with video cameras. My main training came at University, though, where I took two intensive filmmaking classes. The first culminated in a class project, a 20 min. documentary on taxidermy. The ten students in my class shot the entire thing themselves (on film), taking sound, crewing, editing, etc. It was a great experience taking a project through from beginning to end. Then, I took a year off, and during that year shot a 10 min. B&W, silent short with friends. When I returned to school and took my second filmmaking class, that culminated in me directing my own 15 min. short, a movie about a failed superhero called "Episode 23: The Masked Avenger Meets his Match" (his match being his girlfriend, who in the film accuses him of neglecting her for his superheroic shenanigans).

I was involved with "Pleadings" from essentially the beginning, when we hatched the idea together in front of a burned out bus on the Branch Davidian complex, Waco. However, for the first two years, I was basically just a script consultant, the script, story, characters, etc. was all Jim. I merely read some drafts and brainstormed over the phone with him. My really serious involvement didn't begin until we decided to shoot the thing in 2004.

5) Dogme95. Your film more or less fits in with what was considered to be a fairly considerable statement during the years when CGI and digital technology were rapidly changing how film and television were created. What attracted you to the approach as statement and aesthetic? What did it bring to the screen that you felt a more traditional approach might not have pulled off?

Jim: We do break a few of the Dogme95 rules, as we have some artificial light and music on the soundtrack. The neat trick about Dogme95 is that it effectively turns a lack of money and resources into an artistic statement. We thought about rigidly conforming to the Dogme95 rules in order to obtain a certification from the official Dogme95 entity, but we learned that such certifications were no longer being offered by the time we were gearing up to begin principal photography. There is definitely an immediacy to the approach which suits the emotional themes in the film.

Let me add also, and you can quote this, that the shooting style Alistair adopted for the film perfectly corresponds to the type of angry and melancholy narrative I had formulated in the script. The rawness and immediacy of the documentary style digital video approach complemented the emotions experienced by the characters. I cannot imagine it shot another way.

Well, the Dogme movement was both a blessing and a curse to low budget filmmakers. It was a blessing because it showed that intense emotional stories didn't need to involve any Hollywood trickery - in fact, the best Dogme films demonstrated that on-location shooting, no artificial lighting, and a handheld camera could actually be *more* emotionally intense than a lit set and standard camera setups.

The movement was a curse, however, because it was too easy to see it as a mere excuse. I don't have the money for lighting, so I'll just claim my style is Dogme. So, if the production was big budget, shooting Dogme-style would clearly be a choice, if it was low-budget, the question of shooting Dogme-style might become a necessity, and thence not an aesthetic decision at all.

For my part, it was a little of both. I'd observed that low budget attempts to look Hollywood often came off exceptionally fake. One big problem with the approach is bad lighting. Another big problem is acting - not necessarily even that performances are bad, but if you are constrained to a certain camera set up and a certain lighting situation, you are also constrained to using certain takes. This means you may be forced to accept poorer performances just because they're the ones that fit with your pre-assigned camera movements, etc.

So, the stylistic choice to shoot Dogme was motivated partly by economics, but more so as a strategy for eliciting the most realistic moments from the actors. By shooting the film "documentary style" with very little additional lighting, actors could do very long takes, staying in character, they could move freely around the set, they could allow themselves to be in the moment. Many scenes were shot like this - do the entire scene, with all actors, in one long take. Then I, as camera man, would literally document their interactions using much the same approach a documentary filmmaker would use. In the editing room, however, rather than obscure many of the artifacts of a the hand held camera work (this would be the usual strategy while editing a documentary film), I left many of them in. This stylistic choice was meant to both a) allow me to make choices based more closely on the performances and the energy between the actors (not just camerawork), and b) to create the impression of actual events being observed.

6) You've pulled together a talented cast. There's some interesting stuff in the script for an actor. How did they react upon reading the full script? What sort of questions did they have?

Jim: The cast seemed pleased with the script. We were very, very fortunate to assemble such a talented and versatile cast. We had three rounds of auditions, for which we posted notices on casting email lists and such. The first round was a full day in Houston, followed by a similar day in Beaumont, which culminated in a full day of callbacks in Houston. Some of the actors had questions about the legal issues in the film. But the members of the cast threw themselves into the characters and needed little, if any, instruction on bringing those characters to life.

Alistair: My recollection was that all the actors were enthusiastic. Our leads especially put a lot of work into exploring the motivations and creating backstory for their characters. Some characters which spent relatively little time on screen together, for example, spent a lot of time together off screen in order to build up the rapport the script indicates they have together.

7) A little bit in the way of nuts and bolts: Give us a breakdown of how an independent movie on a shoestring budget secures locations. What was the duration of the shoot?

Jim: The shoot lasted the entire summer of 2004. We were fortunate in that most local businesses were happy to assist us. There is a novelty to shooting a film in Beaumont that no longer exists in Los Angeles or say, Vancouver. That said, I wrote the film with certain locations in mind with an eye toward places that would be more likely to allow us to shoot there. (Moira's apartment in the film was actually my apartment at the time (although only the exterior; the interior was a display unit at another complex). The courtroom was the most difficult location to acquire, but in the end, one of the district court judges allowed us to use his courtroom, where we shot for a full Saturday.

Shoot was about 2 months, maybe a totall of 6 or 7 weeks, but not filling everyday. Much of it was shot in spurts (such as the extensive party sequence, shot in a long weekend at a single location). Locations were found either by our production managers, or through friends. All the domestic interiors belong to friends except for Moira's apt., which was a showcase apartment in a friend's complex.

8) With the writer and director both there, what sort of consultation did you go into with the actors? What surprised you once the cameras were rolling?

Jim: I myself did not attend all days of shooting. However, when I was present, I would offer input if asked. Usually on procedural issues or character motivations (although Alistair did allow me to almost direct portions of the law school scene since that was such a familiar thing to me). There were many surprises once the calendars were rolling; Alistair and I were on the same page about actors ad libbing and going with the flow and where the scene takes them. Some directors want firm adherence to the script; we were shooting on video and wanted to see what happened when the cameras began to roll. It was nice to see where the actors took the characters.

I think once we were shooting, I was in control. However, I was juggling many tasks at once - in particular trying to direct and operate camera at the same time is exceedingly difficult. Jim was an enormous asset on set as he was able to keep his eye on performances, the appearance of locations, etc. while I was distracted by technical issues. My recollection is that the actors frequently consulted with him about everything from the exact pronunciation of a legal phrase to their emotional motivation in a complex scene during shooting.

9) What surprised you most once the thing was assembled as a rough and/ or final cut?

Jim: I think what surprised me most was the fact that the film was too long when I was worried it would be too short. We had a lot of really great scenes that we had to cut in order to streamline the movie to a more appropriate length.

Alistair: rough cut - yay, we succeeded in telling a story!

In moving from the rough to the final cut, it was remarkable how the storytelling got better as we cut out character development and secondary plot lines. However, I think you can still feel these cut scenes in what's on screen. We basically discovered what was redundant in a way that simply couldn't have been done until after the original screenplay had been shot and edited.

10) My mother-in-law reads this blog. Tell Judy, using your best elevator speech, why she should watch your movie. Failing that: why didn't you write me a lead role in which I get to shoot guns and pitch woo to all the aspiring starlets your casting could handle?

Jim: There is a roll for you in "Pleadings II: Summary Judgment".

We made this film because we wanted to rebel against certain formulas; the familiar exposition through dialogue, the overexposure of NYC and LA, and the general campiness of movies about young adults. This is a darker film which is more serious in tone which requires some thought and post hoc reconstruction. But that's just my writer's pretense. Judy should watch the film because there are some very honest and powerful performances from some actors that she has never heard of.

Alistair: Find us the funding for the next film and we'll definitely give you a part. With guns.

Judy - don't watch "Pleadings," it's too depressing.

A League afterward:

Were the film terrible, I would still be incredibly impressed and proud of JimD and Alistair (and their talented, young cast). Mounting a feature is an incredibly difficult process, and because of the complexity of the task, 99.99% of the features dreamed of go absolutely nowhere.

However, in addition to actually finishing the movie, The League's memory from two years ago offers up high recommendations. The actors are, great, the script and direction is tight, and while no laugh riot of a movie, it's depth makes it engaging viewing.

So congrats to JimD and Alistair. Its been a long time in coming. And special thanks to JimD, the initial inspiration for this blog, an attorney to the stars, and now a fancy movie writer.


Jim D. said...

If memory serves, the screenwriting class was May of 1998, as I seem to remember taking it just before I graduated. I would not start law school until a year later, in May of 1999. I wish I could make your screening party!

The League said...

I think that we actually had both the feature-length screenwriting class together, as well as its predecessor. I think. It's been ten years.