When I was a college film student, one of the first classes putting theory into practice divided the students into groups of three. The class goal was for each group to make three films. The group would rotate among themselves the key positions of Writer, Director, and Cinematographer. This allowed everyone a chance to experience those roles.
Our group produced one that was silly fun, one that was weird and off-the-cuff, and one that was interesting and which affected people.
Sadly, I have only memories (so I might be making this up).
Our group consisted myself (obviously), Steve, and Diana (which may, or may not, be their real names, I don’t really remember and generally can’t be trusted with things like that). The first film we did — which we kind of burned ourselves out doing — Steve wrote, I directed, and Diana shot. I’ll come back to that one.
The second was a silly bit of fluff that I wrote, Diana directed, and Steve shot. (We all did the editing on all three, and that’s its own story.) What I wrote was a Monty Pythonesque modern telling of Little Red Riding Hood with as many other fairy tales thrown in as I could think of.
We borrowed a red convertible Mustang that our “wolf” drove while picking up a hitchhiking Red (who did indeed have a red cloak). Granny’s house was a nice Los Angeles suburban house whose owner let us use their backyard and pool.
Rather than granny sleeping in bed, granny was sunning herself out at the pool. (At one point we had a “knight in shining armor” — an actor wrapped head to toe in tinfoil — stuck on the bottom of the pool vainly swinging his sword.)
It was typical college-level pot-tinged humor such as in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Purgatory, another college script I shared with you recently. But we had a lot of fun doing it. It was almost all exteriors, so we were outside, and we had a pool to swim in.
I might still have the shooting script somewhere. If I find it, I’ll post it. Maybe. Depends on how embarrassing it is to read.
That second film pretty much used up what artistic resources we had left after the first one, so the third film was something we knocked off for lack of energy, ideas, or time.
We took over one of the college conference rooms for a day and shot a film about three film students desperately trying to think of an idea for their third film. Essentially we filmed ourselves.
Literally. We three were the only actors involved. We got another film student to do the actual camera work. Yes, that was cheating (don’t tell the teacher). We also shot it as we went along, so there was no script.
As the “day” wears on, the film students become more and more frantic and more and more crazy. The whole thing is just a series of short takes.
It ends with Diana and I dead and Steve in fetal position gibbering in the corner. Diana is spread-eagle on the table, I’m buried under a huge mound of crumpled paper (which the room was filled with), and we’re all in our underwear.
In many ways it reflected the course of the semester for us.
The first film was a serious and well-done work (if I say so myself) that got under people’s skins and which made a sharp point (one I still ponder today). It really took a lot out of us, and we fought like cats through most of it. The film was extremely emotional, and so was making it.
But I learned that such battles can result in extraordinary results. For one of us to convince the other two that an idea was good, it actually had to be good. We fought over every detail, and as a result, every detail came out nearly exactly right. A very important life lesson for me on several levels.
The film is split into two parts: what you see, and what you hear. (We were shooting in Super 8mm and didn’t have synch sound, so any dialog had to be off-camera. One way we got around that is by having no dialog at all in the first two and shooting only reaction shots on the third.)
What you hear appears to be the soundtrack of some talk show with a moderator and two guests, one clearly a liberal and one equally clearly a conservative. The topic of discussion is the value of humans, in particular the value of recidivist criminals.
The liberal (a female voice) argues for the “unconditional value” of all humans (and the name of our film was An Unconditional Value) and for progressive, compassionate treatment. The conservative (a male voice) argues for strict, even harsh, measures against “people like that.”
We actually did write and video tape our talk show. As you’ll see, we had to.
What you see was this:
We start with a man driving a car through an upscale part of town (Beverly Hills, in fact). He stops at the curb before one house, goes around to the back, and breaks in through the back door.
As he explores the house, we understand that he’s a burglar (the black gloves were a bit of a give-away).
Then he hears a sound outside, peeks through the window, and sees a well-dressed woman driving her Porsche into the driveway. He watches as she gets a bag of groceries from the car and approaches the house.
The burglar runs into the kitchen, goes through the drawers, and finds a large, heavy knife. (We were particularly proud of an over-the-shoulder shot showing him get the knife from the drawer. We lit it so a reflection of light runs down the knife as he lifts it towards his face.)
Mr Burglar then goes to the bedroom and hides in the closet. You can probably guess what’s coming. And you’d be right.
The woman drops her groceries off in the kitchen, goes to her bedroom, and starts to change clothes. She’s in her slip when she goes to open her closet door, and out pops the Bad Guy.
There is a brief, violent struggle that ends on the bed, and we fade out on her hand gripping the sheets.
We fade back in on her dead bloody body on the bed. As we pan along her body we keep panning and end up on the small black and white TV by her bed. She’d turned it on when she first entered the room.
Remember that through all of this we’ve been hearing the talk show soundtrack. What we see (warning: heavy college-level irony ahead) when we end up on the TV is that the liberal we’ve been hearing is the dead woman on the bed.
The point, glaringly obvious, is to raise the question whether people all do have unconditional values. Were the Founding Fathers right about “inalienable rights” or can some make it clear they have no interest in being part of the human race? Can you, in fact, alienate your human rights?
I gotta be honest. Some people really make me think so. It’s a question I still haven’t fully resolved personally.
That film, irrespective of the other two, got us all an “A” for the semester. When we screened it for the class, a few of the women left during the rape scene. (Affecting someone that strongly is an artist’s dream. It’s a huge part of what we’re all about.)
Another lesson learned (or confirmed, anyway) was the power of imagination. The rape scene actually shows almost nothing. Visually, it was barely PG. The worst shot (other than the bloody final pan) was when he throws her against the armoires (we taped several bath towels to our actress’s back to absorb the impact) .
Suggestively it was a whole other thing. The best scary movies scare you with your own mind! No monster on film can ever come close to matching the monsters in our own minds.
We were very proud of that film, and I think we had a right to be. It was a very good piece of work (for college students, anyway), and it had something to say.
These days it would be so much easier. Technology has gotten to the point where everyone has a camera, and for not much money you can get a really good camera. And all you need is editing software for your computer, and you have most of what you need. But back in the 1970s it was rather a more difficult proposition. (As usual: Born way too early or way too late.)