Making a Book Trailer (3): Finding New ImagesPosted: August 13, 2012
Pillai’s first ideas about the trailer and the script were derived from reading Companion to an Untold Story and from our discussions. He hadn’t yet visited my house, which sits above the Red Cedar River—a shallow creek in a summer of drought—within a grove of maples and oaks. Cedar-sided and stained a rustic red, the river house is wide but not deep, its aspect dominated by windows. From inside, in whichever direction you look, you look out on water or woods.
Before visiting the house to check out its possibilities for filming, Pillai had contemplated various scenarios, as I said in a previous post. What he saw at the house changed his thinking and set him on a path that determined the evolution of the trailer. Gone was the idea of filming me driving a car and hitting a boy. In this environment, Pillai was moved by the flow of the river, the experience of light, the sun striking and shifting through the tall trees, the window-framed views. He wrote: “It is inspiring to think of the visuals for our trailer because of the spacious windows and the descending landscape, and the play of light and shadow because of the greenery around, and the stream of water.”
Early in our discussions Pillai had recommended I watch some films by Robert Bresson. I couldn’t bear to see the cruelties done to the donkey—O black beauty!—in Au Hasard Balthazar, but I did watch Pickpocket, about a man driven by a self-destructive compulsion to steal. Bresson builds his story out of images of things: hands, doors, door knobs, the stairs ascending to the man’s room, the movements of a wallet that is spotted, fingered, nabbed, lifted, shifted, hidden, transferred, emptied, dropped, abandoned, dead.
Our trailer would likewise tell its story through views of things. Pillai commented, “The more I think of the narration, the more I think of a minimalist Bressonian style as far as the visuals and the voice-over are concerned—music could be sparse and used for simulating/complimenting affective sound effects, like the occasional chirping of the birds, the sound of the flowing stream or the wind bristling through the leaves, or fluttering of the pages/papers, as you rightly suggested. [In my first version of the script, a breeze ruffles the papers on a desk.] In a Robert Bresson / Terence Malick style we can use the sounds, apart from the main voiceover, minimally so that they are noticed.”
At the time I had no good sense of how such a visual and auditory style would be realized. While I had given up the idea that my script would prescribe what scenes would be filmed, I still had a rather literal notion of transferring an image from page to screen. Words about birds and bottles, I thought, would coordinate with visuals of birds and bottles, an assumption that led to some anxiety on my part. We had discussed filming in a bathroom, for example, since that is the room in which Joel died, but the bathrooms in my house bear no resemblance to the one described in the Companion: “Viewless, bookless, laid with cold linoleum, at once the most ritualistic and impersonal room in the apartment, stripped down to its dull tiles …”
In the process of filming, however, we found—Pillai found—new objects, ones not mentioned in the book, to carry the trailer’s feelings and themes. We weren’t going to rattle and roll a bottle down the hill; there was already a river flowing downward for us. Joel’s cherished roses, an iterated image in the book of love and desire, don’t grow in the filtered sunlight that comes down through the forest around my house. But I had red geraniums, red flower pots, and lots of red food coloring, which Pillai in filming would set in contrast to the cold purity of water running down the sides of my shower and down the drain.
A swing in my backyard that hangs on a single rope from a high branch suggested children to Pillai, for Joel was a teacher, involved in their education and play. Two lawn chairs, drawn next to one another, implied my friendship with Joel but, empty and disused, also expressed his loss and absence. An overturned canoe across the river hinted at capsize and suicide.
I learned an art of visual improvisation from the director, who, able to imagine a scene from the book by mining the materials at hand, was gifted in serendipity, in finding new images to convey the emotional terrain of a book that we couldn’t literally film.
I discovered, when we began shooting, just how flexible and accidental filmmaking can be.