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Posts Tagged ‘film school

The Masque of the Red Death

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The Masque of the Red Death was the third film of five that I made my first semester in film school in 1990. Of all the films I’ve made, it received the strongest and most negative reaction. I took this criticism to heart so when I transferred some of my Super 8 films to video in the nineties, Masque was not one of them. I almost immediately regretted this and have come to view Masque as being, in some ways, my best film.

Where did the idea come from? I’m not really sure. I do know that, unlike my previous film which had been completely improvised on the spot when an actor did not show up, and my next film, Rocketman, for which I shot a lot of footage without knowing what I would do with it, when I went off to the comic book convention to do the primary filming for Masque I knew exactly what I was going to do. Each time I was asked (and I was asked many times) what I was filming I answered, “A film that compares a comic book convention to Edgar Allan Poe’s story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death.'” The reaction? Always a blank stare. (Remarkably, I was never asked that question by a security person. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single security person at that convention. I had more trouble getting a shot of a construction site before being chased away by an angry foreman.)

I think the idea for the film began when I knew I was going to the comic book convention to see Stan Lee. (I had the choice of going Saturday, when Lee was there, or Sunday, when Jack Kirby attended. I never got to see Kirby and have regretted this decision ever since.) But I do not recall how Poe’s story entered the mix.

From my notebook, written before going to the Con:

Comics: two worlds: relationships between inside and outside

– ironic parallels

– the idea should have something to do with the way comic fans are generally ignorant of world news – it is really a total escape – but the question is: so what? Does it matter? – are they all suffering from The Peter Pan Complex?

– B/W = wasteland

– Cocteau: “Film shows Death at work.”

– Interviews: “What do you think of death?” Blunt, to the point – see if anything happens – if not, try another approach.

I didn’t do any interviews for the film, although I did record Stan Lee talk. (One of the things he said was that James Cameron had agreed to direct Spider-Man.)

– Death finally reaches the Con – enters unseen – people start fading away – again, unnoticed

– The comics remain, and in color – but the con is empty

– Escape from death – comic book con = womb

The notes suggest that I intended to make a film that’s a critique of comic fans. This was not my intent and I don’t think that’s the point of the finished film. This is why it does not end at the convention, but outside it with everything colored red. (If I were to make a film about comic book culture today I would emphasize the positive utopianism of its alternative reality imaginings.)

Here’s the “script:”

Before the class screening I showed a rough cut to two friends who were also in the class. One of them, Elliott, said, more or less, “You do realize that you are going to be raked over the coals for this?” He was more right than he knew.

You can read the comments by the class and teachers on the finished film here. The comments from the main teacher, Russ,  come near the end of the file and the other teacher’s comments, unsigned, come just before that one. (The best way to read the file at the link  is to click on the full screen icon at the bottom right of the screen.)

Technical note: I transferred the film to digital format by taping a Super 8 projected image with a digital movie camera, except for the cartoon section which comes from a tape produced by a professional transfer house. (I had separated the cartoon section from the rest of the film.)

Written by pronountrouble2

June 17, 2010 at 10:50 am


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Intermezzo is a film that I made at Film School in the Fall of 1990. It was during the second semester of the program. The script was meant to have been written and approved as part of the Spring semester’s writing class. I somehow convinced my writing teacher to approve a script that was based on a film I had already made that Spring. Here’s the cover page of the script with the teacher’s signature under “recommended:”

Rocketman was a weird, actor-less film. I had no intention of making that film (again), but needed to buy time to think of what I was really going to do. Time had been in very short supply that first semester (we had to make five short Super 8 films and most of us were completely unprepared), and I didn’t want to repeat any of the mistakes that I had made, caused primarily by a lack of preparation. In fact, I nearly failed the main production class that semester. So I was lucky that, despite having to get a script approved in Spring, the official deadline for the script was not till the end of August. I intended to use the Summer well.

Although I had the luxury of the entire summer to come up with a script that I liked, such was not the case for coming up with a partner. Everyone in the program was required to form a partnership with another classmate, and how this happened was entirely up to us. Although not without a bit of drama, due to my films that semester scaring just about everyone away, someone who I would have been happy with agreed to be partners. I say, “Would have been happy with,” because, despite having agreed weeks before the end of semester, my would be partner called me up almost at the last minute to tell me that he didn’t think we’d be good partners. So that left me scrambling for another partner. Luckily, I found one, but my would be partner ended up with a graduate student and they were only allowed into a class when another team, who happened to be friends of mine, showed up a full week late for orientation, both of them having marked their calendars wrong. (This is especially amusing for those who know that one of these tardy filmmakers later went on to a professional career in his home country of Norway.)

The seed for the idea that I finally landed on for my project was probably planted by Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter which I re-read that Summer. Here are some excerpts from notebooks in which I developed the script. The first entry for is little than a title:

The Clockwork Society: Instead of a society that treats people as machines, it’s people who go through life like machines – so when the “clock” breaks down, it has to be repaired.

A little later:

Birth to death – everything is done on time and to the beat, which is constant.

Then I had another idea, which I called The Gift:

Character lives in harmony with universe – because it’s the same routine everyday – the same quirks – the same squeak in the floor – the objects, furniture, space and he make love – the room is his lover. Then something changes – not a new roommate – maybe someone – the girl next door – gives him a present – it doesn’t fit – but he keeps it – and it ruins everything – eggs fall on floor, he trips – he bangs his head.

The routine should be as beautiful and intricate as a clockwork mechanism, but at the same time suggest machine-like deadness.

The gift became a plant.

The gift should be a plant-like object, but unlike any real plant so it can grow bigger and bigger.

The balloons in the final film probably derive from this plant.

He goes to sleep – wakes up – there’s something on the bed – and it’s all over the apartment. (it’s the plant)

I added roommates:

It would work better if there are three roommates – they go through their routine like the figures in a clock – just failing to touch each other – and not noticing each other – except to pass the pepper.

Then I decided that I didn’t like the addition of rooommates:

This might work better choroegraphy-wise, but it ruins the story. I need to figure out ways to make it work with just one guy.

I began to think about its meaning:

What’s it about? Love of things is easier than love of people. Also, love of sameness, habit. Things equal the same, while love, true love, requires adaptation to different, strange, uncategorizable surprises. Our society is, despite the hullabaloo about love, a society that prefers objects. We treat our things better than we do other people – we treat our family as if they were possessions.

The plant became mobiles:

Mobiles, stabiles, too, with messages: “I love you, John – Joan.” “Thanks for last night.” They begin to spin. If B & C stand in one place, they have to duck every so often.

It just occurred to me that this is pretty much what’s happened in my house with mom hanging plants all over the place, making it necessary for me to duck.

I was getting nervous about getting the script done:

I’m running into problems with this script with less than a week to go. It’s probably helpful to think that the script will not be set in concrete – it’s merely necessary to have a script – changes can be, and will be, made later.

Plants are out because of the expense, but I think that mobiles may be better.

Problem: what power keeps those mobiles in place? Why don’t the other two tear them down instead of trying to get along with them? Maybe it’s a father and two sons…

I have to stick to an idea and Clock has to be it. Don’t give up just because there’s a little trouble.

More thematic musings:

Love can turn to routine – it’s just a mometary disruption in the course of things.

The routine isn’t perfected yet, but close enough. It’s the love that I’m worried about.

I found the solution to my “trouble.”

Ma, Pa and son – instead of three men – this helps avoid woman as disruptor.

“Three years later.” 1. Son; 2. Wife; 3. Kid. The kid walks down the hall, exits.

What am I looking for? What’s the film about? A crazy mirror – I want people to say, “That’s true,” and by looking at it, not accept it, but hopefully do something about it – I don’t want the end to appear inevitable.

Once I replaced the three male roommates with a family, everything pretty much fell into place.

July 5, 10pm – I finally have a script!

I sent a copy to my friend James who had been in most of my Spring classes and would get an Assistant Camera credit on Intermezzo. He said he did not understand it:

This proved to be a common reaction to my film ideas and scripts. Many seemed to have difficulty visualizing what I intended to do, but the biggest doubters often became the biggest supporters of the finished film. This was especially true for Intermezzo.

Here’s the script:

Even though the script is just four pages long, there are some scenes that did not make it into the finished film. I wasted a lot of effort trying to find a location to shoot the Bathroom scenes. It worked out in the end.

Here some storyboards for the Bathroom scenes:

The bathroom scene may have been cut, but my partner’s film, Flush, made up for it by taking place almost entirely in a restroom.

For those interested in the behind the scenes of a relatively smooth student production, you can read my (unedited) Production Diary for Intermezzo here. (The best way to view it is probably to select the full screen button in the bottom right of the screen after selecting the link here.)

(Notes on abbreviations in the Diary: “>” represents “out;” a period (.) represents “ing;” “fr” represents “from;” “U” represents “that; inverted “U” represents “the;” a “w” with a line over it = “with.”)

I say the production was “relatively smooth” because few productions are without problems and, while this one was not one of those, the finished film was pretty much the one that we started out to make. The primary problem with productions of this type are the artificial deadlines and the limited time imposed by the class schedule. We shot the film mostly in sequence, which means the first shot, of the clock, was the first thing we filmed, and the last shot, of the girl going down the stairs, was the last thing we shot. But we didn’t have the time to shoot everything and we didn’t have the time to shoot what we did shoot the way we wanted to shoot it. This is mainly true for the latter pancake making scene – the one that ends with the parents’ encounter with the refrigerator door. Compared to the first pancake making scene, the latter’s setups and lighting are not as satisfying to me and that’s simply a matter of not having enough time to do the setups I wanted. But like I said, this was a relatively smooth production and others in the class were not as fortunate.

The list of my out of pocket expenses:

The program for the big screening:

So who the devil was Frederick Winslow Taylor? Wikipedia has the answer.


For what it’s worth, here is my partner’s film. It has sound, but I think it works better with the audio off.

The credits on these films, as with many films, are not entirely accurate. While Jonathan was credited with camera and lighting on Intermezzo, I actually did most of the lighting and camera setups, and Trygve did the camera work for this key shot:

Flush began with Jonathan intending to do the lighting and camera himself, but I eventually convinced him to let me do it. I had nothing to do with the graffitti on the bathroom walls (putting it there, or taking it down), but rearranged some garbage and tried to frame and light it to make it as much like hell as possible. He printed it lighter than it should have been for the effect.

This is how the film looks:

This is closer to my intention:

The film:

What I wanted:

This was my (obvious) gag:

The shoot went even more smoothly than Intermezzo‘s. Some actors even worked for crumbs (another of my ideas):

The only major crisis I remember was when I dropped and broke my light meter on the last weekend of the shoot. Luckily, Jonathan found one to borrow.

Unlike most of the other teams for this class, Jonathan and I were still talking at the end of the semester. Jonathan even told me that he would like to work with me again. Unfortunately, he did not tell anyone else, and it seems I had acquired a bit of a reputation for abuse due to rumors about how I had treated him during the filming of Intermezzo. You can never be sure about rumors, but whether it was due to something like this, or something else entirely, despite having made two good films I still had a hard time finding a spot on one of the four projects set to be produced the next semester. Crewing on one of these was one of the requirements for graduation, but more importantly it was also a prerequisite for directing one of those films. It was only at the last minute that I was “hired” to work on a film called Joel Was Here, which was directed by Erik Flemming of The Silver Surfer fame.

What is Intermezzo about?

I’m a bit intrigued by the similarity on the thematic level to WALL·E (which, of course, was released 18 years after Intermezzo). Andrew Stanton, WALL·E’s director, says his film is about how “irrational love defeats life’s programming.” He said:

I realized that that’s a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines and our ruts, consciously or unconsciously to avoid living. To avoid having to do the messy part. To avoid having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us.

The main difference as far as theme goes between Stanton’s and my film is that in my film love does not win. The robots in Wall-E are metaphors for people who act like robots; the people in Intermezzo act like robots settled into a routine. In Intermezzo, love disrupts the routine, but only momentarily and routine wins out in the end.