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Shadows on the Wall

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(Note: for those looking for an explanation of what it all means, look near the bottom of this post.)

Shadows on the Wall is the film I went to Film School to make. This is what it was all about.

The idea for the film began with Will Eisner’s The Spirit. I had wanted to make a film using The Spirit for a long time. In it The Spirit would have thought he had escaped from the pages of a 2-D comic into the real 3-D world, only to discover that he was in fact in a film being manipulated by a malevolent director, The Spirit’s archenemy, The Octopus. I wrote about it here.

I went to film school because I had no other way to make the film. One requirement of the first semester writing class was to write a script that might possibly become a film in the advanced class. The Spirit was of course already gone when I wrote the first outline:

There is more than one reason why I was lucky to make this film. First, only a small fraction of each class at this school got the chance to make such a film. The selection process began with the submission of a sample reel of previous work, usually the second semester’s project, and from those submissions a small group was chosen to pitch. A prerequisite was having crewed on one of these projects. Getting on a crew was not a foregone conclusion and I had been chosen almost at the last possible moment, probably thanks to my friend who had been one of the first chosen. I had no chance the first semester of my eligibility due to its also being based on teacher recommendations. See here for that story. But  I lucked out again when they removed the recommendation requirement and I got to pitch the next semester. My project was not chosen, but my script was made eligible for the pool. The readers gave it a split decision:

Another semester, another pitch. Third time proved the charm, possibly because it was just the second semester of having a student on the selection committee and the student was someone I knew.

Here is one of the notices put up on bulletin boards around the Film School announcing the selections:

(The members of the selection committee were especially concerned with how I would be able to pull off the cinema effect. This effect, with the indispensable help of a for-one-weekend-only art director, proved to be one of the easiest things to do in the film, as demonstrated above. However, although we eventually used the sound stage for the scene, as I had hoped, it was only when another director gave up his scheduled use of it that we had a location that worked. In the meantime, we had wasted a lot of time tracking down and looking at possible locations. A friend of one of the actors offered to rent us a space for what they thought was a cheap rate, more than $1000! The fitting topper to that episode was finding a parking ticket waiting for me when I returned from the interview for that space.)

So I was one of just four chosen to direct an advanced project. Not only that, but my friend, Trygve, was also chosen. Also, as with Intermezzo, I had all summer to prepare.

Actually, it wasn’t quite like Intermezzo because while I had all summer, I was also working full time. (About $8/hr at Philips Media, testing CD-i. I could not have survived without overtime.) That didn’t change just because I was directing and writing a film, not even when the shooting began. Nevertheless, the pre-production went well. The main characters were cast and I couldn’t have been happier. I even had a storyboard/concept artist for a short time. Here are some concept drawings he did of Mortimer the Sun:

I even had a storyboard artist. Here’s a storyboard sequence in which Kino-Eye shows Kitty how to use a camcorder:

Storyboard for early version of Kino-Eye sequence

My idea was not that storyboards should be used to represent the final script, but to work out ideas visually on paper. This meant many revisions to the script. (One of the minor changes was to replace the camcorder, as seen in the above storyboard, with a Super 8 camera.) In fact, I changed the script so many times that I drove the storyboard artist crazy and he stopped responding to my calls. However, his work was a great help.

Here’s a clip of the first rehearsal:

I was still way ahead of the game. Classes had not even started, and Trygve, for one, had not even begun to cast his film. Yet here I was with my main actors rehearsing a scene.

You can tell things are going well from the video. However, note that the actor playing Kino-Eye is not the same as the one in the film. Bernie had a tight schedule, and I had hoped we could work with it, but after the first weekend of shooting, seeing how slow the pace of the shoot figured to be, I knew that that was a pipedream.

After classes actually began there was one small problem that I had to take care of: paying the bill for the class. I did not have the money to pay for the class. I may have hoped that I would be able to work enough overtime during the summer, or win a bet on a horse race, to pay the bill when the time came. But when the time came, I could not pay the bill. There were three classes to pay for, the general film-making class, a directing class, and a writing class. A friend told me that the graduate class did not have to pay for the writing class. I went to the head of the school and told him my problem. If you were to think that this was one of the top 10 most embarrassing moments in my life, you would be correct. Of course, I was also afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take the class. This was unlikely, but a possibility nonetheless. I told him that I thought it was unfair that undergraduates had to pay for something that graduates did not. He got on the phone, and a few minutes later the bill had been reduced. (Not just for me. Trygve was pleasantly surprised when he learned about it.). The rest of the problem was solved when I was allowed to pay the tuition off in monthly installments. It took almost two years, but it was eventually paid in full.

It’s funny about the problems we had making this film because they were pretty much the same kind as the ones we had making Intermezzo. However, unlike Intermezzo, we were unable to recover. It always came down to the inflexibility of the schedule:

We had a test shoot weekend, three weekends for principal photography, and a final weekend for pick-ups. A total of 10 days, although we couldn’t shoot very much on four of those days because they were the test shoot and pick-ups weekends, meaning that we were supplied with limited film for those shoots. (We actually had a role of film left over and I joked that I was going to scrap Shadows and make completely different film with that role.) That’s it. This was a “student film,” but it was made under very different conditions than student films such as “A Grand Day Out,” which took Nick Park 7 years to finish, or “9,” which took Shane Acker 4 1/2 years to complete. Those two were able to work on their films until they felt they were complete. I was not. Despite the different rules, our films are all lumped together as “student films.”

Why did this school have such an iron fist when it came to deadlines? Their philosophy was that if you wanted to work in the industry, you needed to learn to work on deadline. Well, industry folk don’t have to deal with actors who put an audition ahead of your shoot;  if a crew member doesn’t do his job, you can fire him.  Schedules and deadlines are meant to be guidelines. If the film isn’t finished by the 9 am Tuesday deadline, you don’t say, “That’s a wrap. We’ll have to make do with what we have.” It’s called going over schedule or going over budget. But the film is finished. You would think that this school would want its students to produce the best work possible instead of being such a fanatic about schedules. Who sees the finished film and makes adjustments for the obstacles overcome during production? No one. Instead, a film’s shortcomings are attributed to lack of skill or talent.

We applied for an additional day of shooting, but were denied.

If the schedule had not been so inflexible, many of our problems would have been mild annoyances. The crew was made up of students, and we were all learning. We all made mistakes. The lighting effects that I wanted took a long time to set up. Actors, perhaps feeling that they had sat around twiddling their thumbs on the set enough, started showing up late, or not at all. Sometimes they would call us every hour giving us updates from their audition or spur of the moment paying gig, on the likelihood of their showing up; sometimes they didn’t call at all. Then there was the problem that no one seemed to understand what I was doing. Here are some comments on the script by the other three directors in the class:

I never explained that I was going for an Ed Wood-ish aesthetic, the kind talked about by J. Hoberman in “Bad Movies.” (I wrote about “bad movies” here.) I’d read it when it was first published in Film Comment. In any case, attempting the kind of film I was attempting with the budget we had, what other choice was there? And as Ed says in Burton’s Ed Wood, hadn’t they heard of suspension of disbelief? Watch the clip here (about 6:30 to 8:14):

I was almost constantly being pressured to make changes that I felt were wrong, and sometimes I made them. I should never have listened. At one point one of the other directors told me that a change I had made at the suggestion of others in the class need not to have been made. Why did this person change their opinion? They said it was because they did not understand where I was going at that time.

And so it went. Slow on the set; AWOL actors; and pressure from others in the class to make changes. At one point I went AWOL myself. I went home and called my mother. It was at that point that I had a clear vision of the future, the same future from which I am writing this. It was a sad day.

However, every director probably has such a moment. The truth is, as I later told Valerie, my production manager who had been the first to commit to my crew, that while the film didn’t turn out as good as I hoped, it was not as bad as I feared. But it’s also true that we didn’t get the chance to shoot the entire script and the film is choppier than it should be. Greg, the camera operator, remarked that it seemed more like a trailer than a film.

Here is a late stage rough cut that includes some stuff that was cut that would have helped tie things together a bit better. (Image and audio quality are less than great because it was taped from the screen of a flatbed editor.)

Here’s the original ending that was not filmed due to “do you have permission to use Godzilla” types and, once again, time constraints:

Kitty, the main character, is a librarian and one of the scenes takes place in library. After McBain, the detective, is hit by the train in the library, his hat flies off and lands on Kitty’s head. It’s meant to be funny, of course, but it’s also a key moment of the story because it represents the transfer of power from McBain to Kitty.

This is one of the shots that drives me nuts. The gag is lost because you cannot see where the hat comes from. The camera should have begun on the hat and followed it as it fell to her head. Of course, this could have been solved with a re-shoot, but this would have been difficult because even if we did have the time, we had been banned from from the library where the scene had been shot.

Why were we banned? When we shot this scene in the main library of the campus we violated not one, but several rules. First, we shot both earlier and later than we were supposed to shoot. (Into the wee hours, as was the norm for us.) Second, we used a smoke machine. Third, we had unscrewed the fluorescent bulbs making the section dark and inaccessible. Students complained and about a week later I was summoned to the head librarian’s office. I did not know what to expect. It could have meant expulsion and the end of the film, for all I knew. However, I was immediately relieved by her first question which was, “Why shouldn’t I make the library off limits for all future film students?” Before we shot in the library, our DP and camera operator were required to tour the library. During this orientation they were told the do’s and don’t’s of filming in the library. I had not been part of this orientation, so I feigned ignorance when answering the librarian. I said that I had not known that we were not supposed to use a smoke machine. I said I had not known that we were supposed to stop filming when the library closed. Etc. Etc. When it was over, the film was untouched and all that was changed was that future directors who were going to film in the library would be required to be part of the orientation. We still needed closeups of the “train” in the library, but we used another library on campus without problems, even though we used the smoke machine excessively.

Eventually, the film was “finished.” It was all over except for the big class screening.

A few years earlier I had had a dream about screening a film in front of a large audience, then addressing them. The dream came true, sort of. As I said then, even though I had reason to doubt it would get made, there it was on the screen.

About a year later, after what seemed like interminable preparations, the film was shown as part of the student screening festival (not free for the students in the show, by the way, although admission to the show was free for the spectators) at the Academy theater on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. It’s a theater my family and I have been to many times. In fact, we usually sit in the back row as I did when my film was screened. Every time we see a film there, I remember how Robert Wise, who had worked on Citizen Kane, had sat a just a few seats away from me, watching my film. I’ve always felt lucky to have that connection between my film and Citizen Kane.

By the time Shadows was screened at First Look in Fall, ’93, my film had the disadvantage of being associated with a flop. A film called Last Action Hero (released in June ’93) had come and gone. It  was one of the big time Hollywood disasters of the nineties. However, enough people who saw my film remembered the Schwarzenegger movie and linked Shadows to it simply because both movies feature characters who realize they are in a movie. Perhaps some people even thought that Shadows was “inspired” by it. If only they knew!


Did I get anything for my troubles from the First Look screening? Sorta. A New York-based distributor that specialized in short films for children was interested in the film until I told them that I did not own the copyright; a film production company wanted to see any scripts I had written, but I blew them off when I learned that they were producing films such as a remake of Ivanhoe; and the producer of a public access TV show who was quite persistent in asking me to let him put my film on his show. I eventually relented, but didn’t even see the broadcast because I did not have cable access.

In other words, I did not get an agent as I had hoped.

I did not submit the film to festivals mostly because I had very little money and submissions to festivals was not free, but I also felt the film stood little chance of receiving any awards, with emphasis on the first reason. As a gambler I know enough to stay away from longshots that are unlikely to come in.

My film passed with little note, but there were some films on the program that did make a splash, however small. Note that there was a film called Silver Surfer that played both Tuesday and Thursday night.

Yes, it was indeed supposed to be the Marvel Comics Silver Surfer. Although resembling an action figure commercial, the film was a hit. It was a widescreen film that used CGI for the Surfer, and  combined that with live action actors. Technically it was supposed to be a student production. In fact, that was a requirement. But most of the people, with the exception of the guy who did the Surfer animation (so far as I know) were either no longer or had never been students at this school. Here’s where I come in. To take advantage of the school’s sound equipment, they needed someone who had done sound on a film for credit. Ever since I had done sound on a film, I was in high demand for this reason. So I was supposed to leave work and trek on down to the school to check out the equipment for their shoot. I actually spent most of a Saturday on the set of the film, but doing nothing more than talk to the kids who were starring in the production, some of whom had been in James Cameron’s T2. I was supposed to be there to do the dialogue recording, but no dialogue scenes were shot that day. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw my name sharing the sound credit with someone else who had been used in the same manner. He was equally amused. The sound, i.e. the sound design, for this film was obviously done by a professional and stood out against the other films screened at this festival. In fact, I received more congratulations for this phony credit that I did for my own film. “You could get a job with this credit,” I was told.

There is a chapter about the film in The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes which seems to be based solely on an interview with Erik Fleming and Robert Letterman, who did the actual animation, is mysteriously referred to as “RL.”

Nearly 20 years later, Mortimer the Sun still lives!

So what does it mean? Or, as my friend Andrew would say, “Explain it in a nutshell.” Directors tend to be coy when asked that question. I heard a woman ask Wim Wenders to explain The American Friend. He said something like, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have made the film.” He has a point. If a film can be reduced to a few words, or a “meaning,” why make it in the first place? But what the hell…

So what is Shadows on the Wall about?

Let’s call these signposts pointing the general way, rather than a detailed map.

  1. The title, Shadows on the Wall, is a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave as well as film projection.
  2. What’s up with Mortimer the Sun? He’s the logo for Sunnyside Pictures. The idea was planted when I read an article in American Film about Orson Welles and The Other Side of the Wind. The article describes a scene in which crew members were impressed by a sunset. Welles said, “It looks fake.” Mortimer sits on the light side of the “light and shadow” that produce the film image.
  3. Why does the scene after the scene in the detective’s office take place in a library? Because Kitty works there. She’s a librarian. And I liked the labyrinthine nature of library stacks. Shadows itself is labyrinthine.
  4. Kino-Eye. That’s the cinematographer, of course. No big meaning here. It’s just a name that represents film, a perfect name for a cinematographer. For what it’s worth, it’s the phrase used by the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov to distinguish what he considered his more truthful films from false fictional films.
  5. What’s up with that train in the library? Lean wears a train engineer’s cap and overalls, and fondles a toy train. He’s big on trains. But trains and films go together like birds and feathers.

    Train fanatic Orson B. Lean fondles his toy train

  6. The film is about an absurd world. It might be helpful to read up on Theatre of the Absurd. Or watch a film based on one of those plays, for example, Rhinoceros.
  7. The film is anti-detective. The detective’s reasoning is of no use to Kitty. She succeeds where McBain fails because she knows how to adapt to the absurdities. She does not want to run and give up like McBain, whose brain simply collapses, unable to understand this world. I really wish the sequence in which she dances with Mortimer the Sun was not cut because this was an important scene for demonstrating this trait. It’s worth mentioning that the madness of this world began when she attempted to kill herself, as she mentions in the first scene with the detective.
  8. The film is about empowerment. “Now we can be anything we want to be.”
  9. The film is about the empowerment that comes from taking control of your world and understanding who you are.
  10. If it still doesn’t make sense, perhaps it’s because it’s a film, not something that can be summed up in a nutshell. Perhaps it would help to be a bit like Kitty and just go with the flow.
  11. I wanted to make a film that works as a visual metaphor of the world, something that is true of each of my projects.
  12. I wanted to combine the looniness of Looney Tunes with a dash of philosophy.

Addendum (12/20/10):

Reading this post in which David Bordwell addresses the question, “At what aspect ratio should Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) be shown?,” reminded me that I had originally wanted Shadows to be shot widescreen, ie with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. We did shoot the first weekend using a special viewfinder that had markings for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But after seeing how slowly the shoot went that first weekend, I thought it best not to add another level of difficulty to the shoot and abandoned the widescreen notion.  It was not common to shoot films for this class in widescreen and there had been some opposition from the teachers to the idea, so there there was no problem going back to the standard Academy ratio. However, although I had hoped to re-film everything we had shot that first weekend, we ended up using most of this footage in the final film. This is the reason for the excessive headroom in some of the shots of the first scene.

Example of the excessive headroom (with boom operator shadow)
Closer to the intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1

For what it’s worth, Kitty Monroe was modeled after Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday, but the actress modeled her role after Ellen Greene’s version of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Of course, Greene was doing Holiday, so it all worked out, didn’t it?

Ellen Greene as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors
Kitty Monroe
Judy Holiday

Written by pronountrouble2

May 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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