Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Poster Notes

When we all went to see The Blair Witch Project seven years ago (Seven years?!? I'm getting old.), what were we really paying for? The movie or the advertising?

(NOTE: I understand I'm breaking every rule of independent film marketing by mentioning The Blair Witch Project. Bear with me because I do have a point.)

I, like so many others, lined up around the block to see Blair Witch as soon as possible. I did it because the trailer was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen in my life. For those of you who don't remember, you got some ominous Phillip Glass-esque percussion and the following words on screen:

"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

A year later their footage was found . . ."

Then you got the "I am so scared" eye shot and if you were me, proceeded to simultaneously piss your pants and cry for your mommy.

Later, when I saw what an utter dogturd the movie actually was, I learned a very important lesson about the film industry: When we pony up our nine bucks, we're not paying for a movie. We're paying for a marketing campaign.

Before I get too much further, let me make one thing clear: No matter how good the marketing is, there is no excuse for making a crappy movie, especially if it's made by an independent filmmaker. (Big studios are selling widgets, and even Scorsese has trouble getting good shit made, so there's some excuse in that case. Still, it seems that these Hollywood executives should realize there's a direct correlation between the quality of Beerfest and it's dismal box office.) You don't throw story and characters overboard, just because you have a good hook. My first priority is to make Women's Studies the best film I can.

That said, how a film is marketed is pretty important, so from the get-go, it's something Cindy and I have thought about with Women's Studies. Though she didn't major specifically in it, Cindy studied marketing quite extensively in college, so the marketing campaign started just about as soon as we decided we were going to do the film.

Marketing plans are pretty boring to just about anyone who isn't into advertising and marketing. So, just to give you a glimpse of how the process works, I'm going to break down how the Women's Studies teaser poster came to be.

The concept of the female symbol forming the "o" and "t" of "Women's Studies" is almost as old as the story idea itself. I'm not sure where it came from, but I'm fairly sure it was an accident. From the get-go, Cindy and I knew we wanted to incorporate it into the logo design, so we started there.

Enter Tyson Tate, a graphic artist who I became associated with through my work on the Great Society webzine. I ran the idea by Tyson and he worked out six basic designs for the logo which can be seen here. From there, Cindy and I picked #1, which we felt captured the elements we wanted. There were some tweaks of course. We asked that the female symbol be made larger and more pronounced, and played with the shape and "curve" of the other letters until we finally agreed on this:

Red on Black

My original concept was to have the logo printed in blood upon the ample cleavage of a woman a'la Sleepaway Camp III. (I know. I have exquisite taste in bad movies.)

Red on Black

However, my good friend Jim McGivney suggested that the well-endowed lady should be clutching a book with the Women's Studies logo printed on the cover. We thought the idea was brilliant and jumped on it. I guess technically, we had Tyson jump on it, which he did with aplomb. Tyson, being the visionary he is, understood the concept so well, he got it on the first shot.

Red on Black

So, we had the logo, and we had the book, now we just needed a model to pose for the poster. I was all prepared to put out a notice for a model when Cindy spoke up. "Why can't I do it?"

Being a man, I just blurted out, "I'm not sure you have the tits to pull it off."

A week later Cindy still wasn't speaking to me . . .

I'm kidding. Though we did have an honest (yet civil) discussion about whether or not Cindy should be the model. We had both agreed that the breasts should be part of the poster. I hear you ask, "Why is that, Mr. 'I'm making a movie about feminism?'" Because sex sells, that's why. Love it or hate it, breasts grab the attention of our young, male target audience. I know I like boobs.

Anyway, Cindy was offended that I thought her chest wasn't up for the job, so she bra-shopped. Victoria's Secret, Frederick's of Hollywood, the bargain bin at the cheap-o "Body Works" in the mall; Cindy was on a mission . . . a mission to find the perfect push-up bra. I came home one day to discover she had found it. After I wiped up all the drool, I agreed that she should be the model for the Women's Studies poster.

We hooked up with a photographer, Jessica Notargiacomo, and had a very fun night shooting the poster image in my basement. A few bits of trivia about the poster:

--That's a wig Cindy is wearing. She had just cut her hair short before the photo shoot. I wanted the figure to have long hair. Thankfully, Cindy had a wig left over from a show that worked perfectly.

--The original concept was to have Cindy holding the knife, but it looked really awkward. I think it was Jessica, the photographer, who came up with the idea to use the knife as the bookmark.

--In order to "expose" Cindy's chest enough, we used medium sized document clips to pin the shirt tight against her body.

Red on Black

Once the poster was done, we had to come up with a tagline. This seemed to be the most important part, and we engaged many a friend to help us out.

Some taglines that didn't make the cut:

"Class begins soon"
"Get ready to learn a thing or two"
"Prepare to be schooled"
"Cut to the head of the class"
"Anything boys can do . . ."
"History. Anatomy. Dissection."
"Equality cuts to the bone"
"Taking the kindness out of womankind"

Finally, the one that I loved, but knew couldn't be used: "And you thought differential equations was scary"

Credit goes to a cool cat by the name of Ryan Sparks who came up with the tagline that we eventually tweaked to be: "Open your mind before it gets opened for you." It seemed to capture all the elements we were exploring in Women's Studies pretty well.

And that's that. Simple, right?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Death and the Horror Film

My apologies for a late blog this week. I have a good excuse though. Cindy was informed of a death in the family and we had to leave town for the funeral.

In light of that, I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about my feelings on death and horror movies. However, having dealt with death on a very real, emotional level for the past two days, forgive me for not sitting down and working through something new on the subject. While I'd like to, my heart's just not up for it.

Instead, I thought I'd post an excerpt from "Horror Movies 101," a four part essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the webzine, Great Society.

If that feels like a cop-out, I apologize. I hope telling you that next week's blog will be a nice, long, NEW one about the origins of the logo and poster for Women's Studies will be something of a consolation.

Oh, and if enough people want to read the rest of the "Horror Movies 101" essays, I'll post the four parts here on the blog. I wrote them, so I'm biased, but I think they're a pretty good read, especially with Halloween right around the bend.

# # #

One man’s art is of course another man’s shit pot . . . Someone opposed to (horror) films could say, “Why would someone want to watch such things? And don’t give me all your over-intellectualized, thematic gobblty-gook about final girls, sexual undertones or inside evil. I’m not buying it.”

Perhaps all the psychological and literary analysis is just a bunch of horseshit. Maybe I’m just searching for a way to defend my own sadomasochistic fetish for watching films that glorify death. In the end, maybe the horror film is proof that in a society where beheadings in the name of religious fanaticism, ethnic cleansing, and “shock and awe” are acceptable behavior, art is truly imitating life. Maybe humanity is afflicted with some sort of terminal social disease, and the horror film is just a reflection of that. Yet, since death is all around us, why make movies about it?

Most of us seem to be hardwired to try to see the bright side and avoid the darkness. Perhaps it’s connected somehow to our survival instinct. Trying to see the light is our mind’s way of keeping us alive. No one wants to die, even as release from pain and suffering. The idea of death especially in western culture is not a very happy one. There are entire realms of business and commerce capitalizing on the fear of death. There lies the paradox and the problem of modern horror movies, which in many ways are a very American genre; Americans as a whole seem to have big problems with death, a subject inherent to the horror film’s very nature.

Death of course, is the only certainty you really have in life. You can’t stop it. You can’t change it. You can try to put it off, but even that can blow up in your face. Everybody dies: you, me, even the guy down the street with the Lexus, the big house, and the hot wife. Death is the one thing we all have in common. It figures people should find that reassuring, yet few do. Why? Because death is the big unknown, and most people, Americans in particular, hate not knowing what’s coming next. It destroys the perfectly crafted illusion of control we’ve built around ourselves.

To sit in a theatre and watch a horror movie demonstrates a willingness to surrender control, if only for a little while. A loss of control is a loss of power, and powerlessness makes us children again, lacking the logic to rationalize away our fears or the strength to fight them off. Yet what children lack in logic and strength, they make up for in the resilience of curiosity and imagination. The horror movie allows us a safe environment (or excuse) to indulge a childlike curiosity, to take a look at the fearful unknown, and to ask “What if?” What if the shadows on the wall are more than just shadows? What if the boogeyman is real and awake and waiting? What if grandma isn’t sleeping restfully in her grave? What if death isn’t an end but a horrifying new beginning?

Still, that hasn’t answered the question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001, American culture braced for sweeping changes that never came. Terror had become the norm. Irony and violence in the media were figured to be the casualties to the discovery that we weren’t invincible to the horrors of the world. As a horror fan, I feared the genre would die a quick homogenized death. After all, in a world of real horrors, who would want to watch fake ones? Strangely enough, quite a few people do. Horror movies have consistently enjoyed success since September of 2001. As Hollywood continues to make them, people continue to flock to them despite nightly newscasts of terror, carnage and death. Now, how do you explain that?

The fears of the “post 9/11 world” are irrational, uncontrollable fears. The Boogeyman, long thought dead, has been brought back to life as a face-wrapped madman who may steal our life away with a homemade bomb, a poison chemical, or a viral strain. He wants to kill us for no reason except that we’re there and he hates us. Only this isn’t just a movie. It seems a real possibility.

So, maybe by watching a horror film, we can be afraid of something that isn’t quite as real. Slashers, zombies and a little ghost in a well seem a lot less frightening than a fifteen year old Muslim girl with a box of nails and broken glass mixed with C-4 strapped to her chest. Movie monsters are a fear that only grips us for a couple hours. After the credits roll, we can leave those Boogeymen behind. Just as someday, the Boogeyman of the Islamic extremist will also be left behind as the communist and Nazi ones were before him.

Yet again, that hasn’t exactly answered our question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

“Curiosity killed the cat,” the old saying goes, but it’s been known to mess up the human pretty bad too. Besides a strong dislike of losing control, Americans also hate to be left in the dark. We want to know what, how, and why. We want to know what’s behind the locked door, under the bed, and in the dungeon, even if we’ve been warned not to look. A horrible mix of arrogance and curiosity usually compels us do so no matter the warning. Yet we get horribily offended when we don’t like what we see.

The Ring, the popular American remake of the Japanese horror film, is about a VHS tape that will kill you seven days after you watch it. In the beginning of the film, a young girl brags to her friend about having watched the film a week before. It’s not too hard to guess what happens to her shortly afterwards. Her death sparks off a journalist’s interest in finding the tape. She does and as she pops it in the VCR, the audience is screaming at her not to do it.

Yet, put in the same position, who wouldn’t watch the tape? I don’t know if anybody else remembers playing “Bloody Mary” when you were a kid. Supposedly, if you went to a mirror, turned out the lights, and then said Bloody Mary three times, the ghost of “Bloody Mary” would show up and kill you. What usually happened was your friend would tell you to go do this. After ten minutes worth of peer pressure, you’d finally relent and on the third “Bloody Mary,” your “friend” would open the bathroom door and scare the shit out of you.
They even made a movie about it called Candyman. Only instead of saying “Bloody Mary” three times, you had to say “Candyman” five times. Once you did, the ghost of a slave (played by the always excellent Tony Todd) who was lynched for loving a white woman came and killed you with his hook hand. At age sixteen, nothing scared me more than Candyman. Besides utilizing the “Bloody Mary” legend, it illustrates how over time, even the simplest horrors can evolve into myth. It also utilizes our knowledge and belief of urban legends in much the same way as The Ring.

The Ring scared the hell out of me in a way that no movie had in years. And it wasn’t the damn little girl or the story that did it, though both are creepy. No, what freaked me out for days afterwards was the dead girl in the closet. We don’t see what happens to her, but while her mother is describing how she found her body, we get a flash of her corpse huddled in the corner of the closet with this look on her face. I’m getting the shivers just writing about it now.

However the girl was killed, she looked like she was caught in the grip of a terror that would have driven me insane. The way her body is posed, you can almost imagine that the poor girl died of fright. I could spend all night describing it, and I couldn’t get across to you how horrible it is. Ultimately, we find out how she died and what killed her and though it’s pretty bad, I was almost relieved to see it because it wasn’t near as bad as my mind tried to imagine. Still, I was days getting over that girl in the closet.

People like horror movies for the same reason they like roller coasters, mountain climbing, swimming with sharks, or base jumping. They do it because that fear of death is in each and every one of us, and deep down we all know it. Horror movies allow us a chance to beat the reaper, even if only vicariously, to take the craziest risks in the world without really risking anything, to ask “What if?” and know that no matter the consequences on screen, we’ll be okay. We do it because though our minds resist it, our hearts always want to know what the girl in the closet sees right before she dies.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Web of Surprise

Just a short Women's Studies blog update this week, and not for lack of things to talk about. It's actually because Cindy and I have been swamped. I'm exhausted.

I know. I know. I promised a couple weeks ago that I'd reveal some of the cast. Plus, I've been buzzing about this "September Surprise" or some such nonsense. Now, I see the doubt in your eyes. You're starting to think I'm one of those boys, the kind that whispers sweet nothings and tells untrue secrets in order to make you think he's really good. A really nice boy. You think I'm the kind of boy that the Ross-Prentiss academy girls would like to teach a thing or two about leading people on, a thing or two that probably involves very sharp knives.

Of course, I never thought that was in question.

The "September Surprise" will actually be the "Orgasmic October 1st Opening!"

"October?!? Lonnie, you naughty fibber!!!"

Hang on, now. Notice it's the first of October. That's only one day after September ends. So, I really just told a little white lie, one that really is pretty close to the truth, and if it's that friendly, intimate even, with the truth, it's not really hurting anybody, now is it?

Version 2.0 of the Women's Studies website will go live on Sunday evening, October 1.

It will reveal the six intelligent, beautiful, and fascinating women we've cast in Women's Studies. Sometime after the site's debut, I'll be featuring the cast here in a two-part blog.

If you think that's not much of a surprise, that's because the real surprise will be within the site itself. Cindy and I are quite excited about it all. It's going to be very interesting, maybe even a little bad, but you don't mind, do you?

# # #

This is as good a time as any to give props to Ningen Manga's webmaster, Doug Clayton. Doug's Hivemind Studios designed the site for our first short film, First Session, as well as the first iteration of the Women's Studies site. He's a solid guy, always ready and willing to help out. Cindy and I truly appreciate him. He does quality work, never complains, and only demands that I somehow get him listed on the IMDb. More on Doug can be found at eDoug.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The D.L. on the D.P.

Aaron Shirley
One of the most important members of the Women’s Studies production crew is the Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley. If co-producer Cindy Marie Martin is my right hand, then Aaron is the left one. Last week, thanks to the wonderful technology of the “interweb,” we had the following conversation. Hopefully, people will still take us seriously as filmmakers after reading it.

So, what are you doing at this very moment?

I'm halfway through mastering/QC-ing an eight hour government retirement video. I think I'm going to die.

Sounds horrifying. Why submit yourself to that?

Well, I love horror.

Also, I discovered way back in college that I was a masochist, so I majored in filmmaking. It's an expensive and devastating habit that I've functioned with for over fifteen years. I've thought about trying to make a living doing something else, but then my skills would get rusty. Filmmaking is kind of like a cross between martial arts and heroin. In this area, the two main types of paid filmmaking work you can get are "boring" and "annoying." That's where the masochism comes in. I chose "boring".

The third reason is the satisfaction of helping to teach over 200,000 postal employees how to manage their retirement, at least until the tax laws change again.

What if the tax laws change before you finish the video?

I'm actually laughing as I contemplate the ramifications. In the end, I guess the same thing would happen as it would any time the laws change: We start the whole six month process over again.

So, Women's Studies (the film): Pro-Life Conspiracy or Anti-Woman Propaganda?

All the internet buzz has me thinking it's a tasty mix of both.

No. See, you're supposed to emphatically defend the film. "It's cinematic genius! A celebration of womankind! Better than Cats!"

I think my retirement video will be better than Cats, so Women's Studies should be better than Cats hands down. (Jombie cat? What the heck does that even mean?) Not only do I hate Cats, but right now I hate cats too. When I got home last night, one of mine had gotten into my editing room and ransacked the place. The other five were just staring at me like they knew I was going to freak out. My stuff is everywhere! I can't even go in there. I never want to go in there again. Is this all really going up on the internet?

Yes. What were you saying about Women’s Studies politics?

What I meant to say before was that it plays on the right-wing's fears of what empowering women might lead to, but shows what the left-wing might secretly fantasize about.

Name your three biggest creative influences, off the top of your head.

Hmm, I'm going to divide this between filmmakers and non-filmmakers.

-Salvador Dali
-Kurt Vonnegut
-Skinny Puppy

-Stanley Kubrick
-David Lynch
-Roman Polanski

Are there going to be melting clocks and a black monolith in Women's Studies?

No, but I am happy to report there will be a mansion with a secret, evil cult that is infiltrated by an outsider.

Are you talking about Eyes Wide Shut, Blue Velvet, or Rosemary's Baby? I guess Repulsion would work too, though there's no cult.

The correct answers are: Women's Studies, Eyes Wide Shut, The Ninth Gate, and Mulholland Drive. Curiously, the other movies you mentioned use apartments, not mansions. That brings me to an interesting theory about Roman Polanski's films. Almost all of them either have apartments or a mansion. I think Oliver Twist is his first film to have both. I can only think of two of his films that didn't have either: Knife in the Water (small sailboat) and Death and the Maiden (country bungalow).

You know, I was going to mention The Ninth Gate instead of Rosemary's Baby, but was ashamed to admit I actually sat through the whole movie.

The Ninth Gate was a misunderstood masterpiece. I actually liked it better than The Pianist. (I’m not saying it was a better film, just more “Polanski-ish.”) As a side note, how's this for my film geek cred: I saw The Pianist opening night with $750 worth of Polish zlatys in my pocket. Pirates! was misunderstood too. Now, the most pure 'Polanski' film is The Tenant. It makes Repulsion look like a first year student film. Check it out if you haven't.

You realize we're showing the world what huge movie geeks we are, right?

I thought that was the point.

So, what you're saying is no one should be surprised when Women's Studies looks like a Polanski film?

Polanski changes color and light drastically from film to film, but one of his signature “looks” is his use of pan and tilt (from a tripod) to emulate the movement of the human eye across a scene. I'm currently working on a small crane that will emulate the movement of a human walking around a scene. (Most cranes use arcing movement which is not how humans move.) At the same time, the operator still has full tripod-like pan and tilt at the end of the crane for the eye-like movement. Psychologically, the viewer should feel like they're standing/walking right there in the room.

Speaking of lighting, can you talk briefly about a few of your ideas for Women's Studies?

Glad you asked. I have a couple of ideas in mind, but my current favorite is a concept I've been developing for a year or so. I've been studying amateur digital portrait photography on personal profile web sites. There's a lot of bad stuff out there but when it's good, it's fascinating, because it's very original and makes personal images for each person.

A MySpace lighting design? Surely, you must be joking.

I never joke, and don't call me "Surely.” (It's Shirley.)

I knew I picked a bad week to stop sniffing glue.