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there is always something (why I shoot film)

There are maybe ten shots left on the roll. Outside the metro, a collection of pigeons sit on minuscule ledges above two old men. They talk as all old men do, with operatic waves of their hands, sour expressions, belly laughs, eventually scratching their chins as they stare off at nothing in particular. I am pretending to take pictures of something near them, then swing across when they are not looking to shoot a few frames. At one point I surrender to the afternoon and move on.

And now, the courtyard that leads to the film lab. A great old building rests here, a school of architecture where students mill around dressed in black sucking on cigarettes with giant portfolios tucked under their arms. A young man approaches me. I am ready to tell him I have no idea what he is saying, but he wants to know where the film lab is. I jut my chin, telling him the door is just beyond a few bushes. He nods his thanks.

There are screens set up in a jagged line, sheathed in filthy white plastic to …

the man on the ladder



I used to imagine a silent Japanese man, sitting at the top of a ladder. He stared down at a giant, empty  white canvas. It seemed he was there for days, never hung or sleepy. He was waiting. And then, all at once, he dips a giant paintbrush in a mammoth inkjar. The painting leaps free, finished in a handful of minutes. This idea of patience, and an effortless moment when everything is realized - it became a myth I had created, maybe to mock myself. It seemed impossible. I am far more used to the struggle, the whittling away, the nose and the grindstone, the hard wall, the chipping away, the thirteenth attempt at the first sentence. That is what I know. That is where I live.

A year ago, I launched into a project called Blackbetty, supported by a small army of friends and strangers. Pen went to paper as a new president was elected, as so many familiar aspects of life began to recede, replaced by daily question marks and no answers. I cast the best actors I could find, wrote to their strengths, ran around in the snow and forests with cameras and a sound man. The work was complicated and ambitious, but it always felt right. The project grew larger than a feature film, and it takes months to edit, and paint out the bad reflections of a microphone in a window, and mix the audio, and color correct, but the work is joyous, that familiar finessing, that polishing the stones until they shine in the dark. 

I left a few gaps, a few fragments I would shoot last. Last chances to glue things together, a few hail Mary passes to throw when the time was right. Last week, I gave E a script, barely longer than a page. She would speak some Norwegian in it, a language she has been learning completely on her own for the past months. She liked that idea, and the story worked for her. A teenager alone in an apartment, while the world is going to hell outside the front door. In the story, she reaches out and tries to connect, self-edits, becoming her own worst enemy. She naps on the floor. She plays ukulele, without knowing how to tune it. There is a wild snowstorm outside, sudden and fierce. She thinks for some time, she cries for a moment then wipes her eyes. She decides to put some curlers in her hair, just the sort of random things a kid will do when no one is home. 

The shoot was done in two hours, and I edited it the next day. Some stories from this project take me weeks to get right. This one required no wrestling match to solve. Before my second morning coffee was finished, I had a first edit. 



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