Monday, May 14, 2007

The Art of Filmmaking

Sensitive Touches Behind World Trade Centre

It isn’t easy to be rescued – Oliver Stone

We consume movies the way we eat popcorn – without even looking. What we want is a warm, salty, crunchy taste in our mouths, and a bracing cold Coke to wash it down with. But the amount of sensitivity, care and intelligence that goes into a motion picture is not only inspiring in itself, but staggering in some cases.

I have, in my own efforts at filmmaking, spent many agonizing hours just to perfect the opening 10-20 seconds of a film. From that perspective, one can begin to appreciate the months that go into the making of a few minutes of commercial motion pictures. And not only is time a factor, but millions of dollars are spent, and hundreds of lives, and hopes, are put on the line to produce one thing: One film. In the history of filmmaking, World Trade Centre was probably one of these most difficult movies to make.

We had to make the film authentic, but not so authentic that it would be impossible to watch – Oliver Stone

I recently watched World Trade Centre on DVD 3 times in a row. The 2nd and 3rd times were to follow the voiceovers of the real people behind the movie, and also the director’s, Oliver Stone’s, comments.
It is interesting to hear William Jimeno speak about what really happened. He is in some ways far more articulate than Oliver Stone. But then he is a native New Yorker. Oliver Stone’s voice at times reminds me of Nick Nolte’s gravel, and other times, Sir Anthony Hopkins’ steely intelligent tone. What struck me profoundly is the connection Stone feels to the whole human condition. I think many times the audience forgets that. The audience tends to fixate on a particular character, or enjoy a stunt, or gets carried away by romance or action. But all the time, the director is digging much deeper, using color and light, tone and context, to tell many more stories. This is the art of filmmaking, and sadly, many of us don’t see it.

I remember as a young boy, when video was just coming out, my brother and I would record simple sitcoms, sometimes movies too, and watch them over and over and over again. We’d tape over the less good stuff. What emerged though was that once you’d watched something a certain number of times, you began to read the actor’s minds, you began to clearly see the director’s hand, and remarkably, you noticed – if it was a good director – the many layers in a simple story, the incredible attention to detail and the many nuances that ordinary people often miss.

In World Trade Centre, there are cameos made by the heroes of 9/11, and in that sense, it is worth pausing to see who the real John McLoughlin was, for example.

Oliver Stone talks in a way that is different to most people. I’ve mentioned it before. It’s a right brain functionality. Sometimes it can appear incoherent. This incoherence is based on trying to find the exact words to match the vivid picture in the mind’s eye of the speaker. Sometimes these images reel by very quickly. Even though Stone conveys his images beautifully, he has learnt to speak succinctly too. At one point he says:
“If Aristotle was right and catharsis is truly, you know, this combination of pity, terror, fear, and crying is a cleansing of the soul, then this [film] is perhaps the love story that I always wanted to do [to please my mother].”

Imagine the pressure of taking on this most important cinematic journey, where every American is going to be yearning for their own take on 9/11. I know when I heard that Oliver Stone (who also made Platoon and Natural Born Killers) was going to make a movie on 9/11 I was immediately skeptical, immediately superstitious. Time has since passed, and proved he deserved the opportunity. Stone, a private man (he sees himself as a writer) needing to be private with his thoughts, does speak of the intense difficulties shooting the film, of the intense closeness with crowds of people. He says: “I’m sure the film is too dark for some, too hard, although many attacked us for being too easy.”

What shocked me is the intense, absolutely intense scrutiny that goes into a film like this. Even the very first scene, where John wakes up at 1 minute before 3:30am is meaningful. Stone explains that human trait we know so well. Where stress or tension has us wake up even before the alarm, even though we may be very tired. And do we see the significance that on this day, September 11, like so many days before, a man gets up and leaves without saying goodbye to his wife?

The art in this film is really what Stone describes as ‘the interplay of light’. He’s very descriptive of how the scenes were shot where the men were pinned down in the wreckage – he refers to them as holes – of the building: “…dark all day, smoke, certain tedium, the tightness, all these…” conveyed in a threadbare voice, in the hollow quiet of a prison cell, or the soft emptiness of the very early morning.

It is astonishing to see how the director is familiar with every detail of his story. He knows who everyone is, he knows when, where, how much. He is entirely familiar with his story. He must not only know reality, but how to render it. World Trade Centre had to be rendered in 2 hours – a 24 hour story. The artistry involved is compelling under these conditions, when most might try to adhere to a story, or try to be poignant in terms of sheer acting. Stone does both without getting bogged down, and goes further: he pokes into the human condition, that soft hot air balloon, and finds something special, something warm and valuable in it. Indeed, it’s the premise of the film.

At one point Stone says: “Here we leave [the dark of] hole 8 to go into the hospital light. We’ll use the full power of the fluorescents.” Once again, his visual brain, his thinking mechanism is beyond the ordinary skills of many writers and directors out there. Stone also describes the rescue line over the wreckage (survivors were recovered and conveyed over the wreckage on a sort of human conveyor belt), which consisted of firemen, FBI, port authority policemen, paramedics, marines etc as: “A true patch quilt of agencies combined.”

World Trade Centre is one story. One version. We see an interplay of light and dark, we see the approach of midnight. We see one survivor being rescued, and his companion more than 7 and a half hours later (just before 8am). Only 20 people were pulled out of the wrecked buildings alive. The film is just the story of number 18 and 19, and their wives and families. Stone uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe the second rescue: “We went to the more oblique and surreal…” We see Jesus and a bottle of water. And yet it all fits into the human condition.
And so only once John’s wife, Donna, has reached out to the world (she hugs and cries with a black woman at a hospital) is John allowed to be pulled out.

We’re told that this man, who did not say goodbye to his wife that morning, that it was his wife, the strength of his marriage, that compelled him to cling to life, as swarms of pain washed over his shattered body. Try to imagine what it is like to be crushed for hours in the dark. Stone says his favorite scene in the film, is what John (played by Nic Cage) says to his wife in the hospital.

We might ask ourselves, from time to time: What am I doing in this crazy world? Look a little closer. Understand the whole human condition, not just your own. When you watch a movie, look a little closer, and also, look at what you’re not looking at. And find the light. In life there are sometimes second chances for us. We can all learn from what has visited us, we can develop the sensitivity that goes deeply into every frame of the films we see, but then we need to put the blind man in ourselves to death, and be reborn into the light. These too, are visual lessons and metaphors for life. The human condition needs as much warm light as it can get for our hopes to float.

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