Improvising BROWN’S CANYON

This fall, I’ve been working with actors Lisa Every, Jenn Ruzumna, Carter Rodriquez, Sara Rucker Thiessen and Eric Jordan to develop the story of a new film through improvisation, just like we did with Phoebe’s Father. The kinds of movies I love, and love to make, are about believable characters in familiar conflicts – a friendship dissolving, a family rift, a breach of trust. They capture something truthful about our struggles in everyday life.

How can we best tell these kinds of stories? I believe that working with actors early on is one very good way. Taking inspiration from Mike Leigh (whose movie Secrets and Lies I adore), the Brown’s Canyon actors and I are building the characters lives over time. We start on an individual level – every actor creates the details of their character (their family members, friends, childhood memories, favorite objects, talents, schooling, etc). Then, we put the characters together, in situation after situation, being very specific about when and where we are in their individual lives. Each improvisation builds upon the last. It’s extremely exciting – the story evolves in front of us, and we have no idea what’s going to happen next! It can be confusing and complicated, too – for the actors, to be clear about whether it’s the character or the actor making choices; and for me as director and writer, to observe and listen and choose when to make an adjustment and when to push the action forward.

Typically, a movie is written and rewritten many times by a screenwriter, often with producer and director input, long before the actors come on board. With this improvisation process, we try to uncover a deep understanding of the characters before scripting. There are loves, lies, jealousies, and secrets. When Jenn, Sara, Carter, Eric and Lisa come on set to shoot the film, they will know better than anyone how their character thinks and behaves. If we’ve done our work well, we’ll make a movie that is as believable and as real as can be, a story that moves and entertains while being true to life.

(Above, Carter Rodriquez and Jenn Ruzumna in an improvisation)

Editing PHOEBE’S FATHER

This has been one of the best summers in recent memory in Seattle, but ironically I’ve spent a good deal of it in a darkened room. I love editing, my roots are in that world, and it’s been great working with our amazing editor Jo Ardinger to finish our new feature film PHOEBE’S FATHER. Phoebe is a young woman who’s just starting to find her place in life as a competitive cyclist. When her estranged father Ben (Lawrason Driscoll) re-emerges in her life, Phoebe and her brother Whit (Eric Jordan) have to confront a crucial event in the family’s past.

Making this film has been an unusual and wonderful experience. PHOEBE’S came into existence through the efforts of a small, dedicated and supremely talented group of actors and crew. We started almost exactly a year ago. The idea was to make a story that would be real and intimate and that could be shot in a few locations in the immediate community. I feel lucky that some very talented actors were eager to go on this journey with me: Marie Lazzaro, Lawrason Driscoll, Eric Jordan, and Betty Campbell. Over the course of four months they developed the characters’ life histories and the story of the film through a series of improvisations. From that work, I wrote a script, and director of photography Lars Larson, production designer Tania Kupczak and producer Lisa Glaze joined in to put the film into production. Over February, March and April we shot around Seattle, mostly in Fremont and Ballard, with a fantastic crew. My hat is off to everyone who has thrown their creative energies into this story.

Now, editor Jo is off to New Hampshire to get married and we only need to put the finishing touches on the edit. We’re moving into that fun phase of finalizing music and sound. The movie’s come together great and we’re truly excited to share it with the world soon. Here are a few more photos and I’ll post more details as we get closer to premiering the film in 2015.

[photo by Tim Aguero]

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[Eric Jordan, Marie Lazzaro and Lawrason Driscoll, photo by Tim Aguero]

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[Marie Lazzaro and Betty Campbell, photo by Anne Herman]

American Documentary Film Festival

We had a great screening last night at American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. Packed house and an exuberant Q&A for FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM. Every audience since I started showing the film has contained more than one person with a connection to a family farm in the American Midwest. Of course it’s not surprising – not that long ago the number of farmers in this country was far greater than today, and so many of us are tied in some way to that culture. It is a fundamentally American experience and a few are keeping it alive.

Thanks to all who attended, I enjoyed talking with you – and to Teddy Grouya and the AmDocs team for building up such a vibrant festival in three short years. We’ve been enjoying the warm days, crazy winds and kind hospitality of our hosts here in PS. And we’ve seen some absolutely amazing documentaries – two of my favorites have been Happiness… Promised Land by Laurent Hasse, and Searching For Bill by Jonas Rasmussen. If you love docs, check these out!