Music on the sound track or not? That was the last major decision to be made on the Companion trailer, although the preparations required to make it took months.
I briefly considered commissioning a score, but there are no composers among my friends or colleagues who might donate time and talent, and I had no budget to hire someone at market rates. That meant using extant music. But music of what sort, and of what century?
My first thought was premodern classical music, which would allow us to avoid legal barriers. I do have a friend who’s a professional pianist. He was willing to record the chosen piece, and that way we’d avoid problems of copyright.
A search for the right music, however, did not turn up good prospects. The works that Richard and I listened to would, in the trailer, sound rarified, highbrow, and stuffy. I wanted quiet exposition, lament, and resolution, not a requiem for a fallen giant.
An example is Bach, who was at the top of our list, since Joel played his keyboard music on the harpsichord (see the entry “Manhattan” in the Companion). Despite his varied output, however, Bach wasn’t right. The controlled passion, onward drive, and profundity that make him the composer of choice for movies from The English Patient to The Beast with Five Fingers (now there’s a trailer with gusto) were not in the mood we hoped to create.
By chance, however, Bach did lead us to the right music. After we heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale two years ago, Richard signed up to receive the Chorale’s promotional emails. On a recent program appeared a contemporary composer not familiar to us, Nico Muhly.
Having listened to some of his compositions, Richard sent me a link to “A Hudson Cycle,” a piece for solo piano about three and a half minutes long. He liked its quiet forward motion against restraints, and thought it would bring pace to the trailer. I was unsure at first, but as I listened more, the music grew on me. Reading about the composer, I was surprised by his youth (born 1981) and pleased to learn that his father is a documentary filmmaker, like Pillai. After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I listened again to the piece and announced, “It’s perfect.”
In the meantime Richard had emailed an address on the composer’s website, asking about purchasing a license. Somewhat to our surprise, an answer came back from the St Rose Music Publishing saying yes to a two-year license, and at a reasonable cost.
We still weren’t sure we’d use the piece, but if we did, we wanted the trailer to have a longer life. Richard wrote back to St Rose:
We are hoping that the trailer will be a work of permanent value (to its creators, if no one else!). It would be unfortunate to lose the ability to present it after two years. Would it be possible to include in the agreement an option on our part to purchase a permanent license after the initial two years?
No response came for week, for two weeks, three weeks. Richard called St Rose and left a voice mail. No response. What had happened? Had our efforts at negotiation turned off the professionals on the other end?
We needed to find another option. Wandering around YouTube, Richard chanced upon another name new to us, the tragic Lhasa de Sela. How stunning “Love Came Here” would sound under the credits! This was the sort of thing movies did a lot of—a jumpy number as the credits roll.
But we wanted music for the body of the trailer, not just the credits, and Lhasa’s strong vocal personality would clash with, maybe overwhelm, the narration. We couldn’t afford to pay for two pieces of music, and so our Lhasa craze faded.
And then St Rose emailed, offering a license of five years. We had our preferred musical option back on the table.
When the editing was almost complete, the time came to make a decision on the music. The various members of Team Trailer had different opinions. Pillai seemed to believe that the whole was already complete, that the trailer should should stay “dry” (so goes the lingo). Richard was music’s main advocate. He had invested effort in finding the right work and obtaining a license, so I was inclined to defer to his wish to experiment with it on the soundtrack. Pillai was quite willing give it a try.
The trailer has two halves, four segments, divided by fades to black. To put things schematically, the first two segments are Joel’s history and his death, the second two my response and an affirmation. Pillai proposed starting the music with the second half.
Richard jumped on this idea and emailed Pillai:
It occurred to me to begin the music at the same spot you suggested, after the blackout following “And on that day he died.” It would thus represent movement forward in the aftermath.
The music could play continuously below whatever other sounds occur, and end with the word “companion,” the last word of the narration.
I do feel the same way about the music as you do—using it after the bathroom sequence, starting it during the fadeout and the sequence beginning with the egg coddler, and layering it till the end.
When Richard and I visited the lab to watch the version with music, however, Pillai and Drew had placed it much later. The trailer concludes with a few seconds of the river rippling in the sun, a dissolve to the book cover, and then the credits. The music began with the rippling water.
What had changed Pillai’s mind? The piece had too much momentum, he said, and made the trailer “too strong.” The very quality in the music that had appealed to Richard—its ready pace—clashed with the rhythm of the trailer prior to its final scenes.
Yet the music was right for the resolution of the story. It smooths out and unites the concluding sequence, Pillai commented. Although some of us handle silences well, he said, much of the audience would be carried along by the music. In the end there’s “a kind of redemption,” and the music bears this feeling forward.
The music was in.
Still there were fine adjustments to make. Fade in with “the sparrows were up and swooping”? No, the birds sing in a different key. Accompany “the sun is up,” or join “ablaze with light”? Fade in how fast, and fade out how slow? We chose precisely how the musical river would flow, and on what slope.
Only after all my own decisions on the music were made did I read Daniel Johnson’s analysis of “A Hudson Cycle”:
The primary rhythmic figure—a restless polyrhythm of two beats in the right hand for every three in the left—should recall the onward rush of the titular river, which very much represents “home” for the composer. (There it is, out his window.) … its relentless rhythms propel the piece as a river of sound, dark and liquid.
Here ends this series of posts on the making of a book trailer. Here exit the river (there it is, out my window), the river house, the stamps and coddler and things, the bon creative crew, Pillai, Tim, and Drew, and the “unknown man whom we knew.”
The trailer is made.
The editing was done in the Creativity Exploratory lab on the Michigan State University campus, a room wall-to-wall with monitors and CPUs of this size and that, mismatched too-large chairs, students jacked into headphones, the shiny cardboard yield of the packaging industry emptied of contents and abandoned here and there, dusty old computers on the floor that would think no more, on a table excavated hard drives waiting to be smashed or passed on to persons with less need for capacity and speed, empty packets of salty snacks, paper-format cartoons and FYIs taped to walls, others scribbled on a whiteboard, monitors playing their dazy screens, a window air conditioner blowing, a mini-fan going—all the features you’d expect in a student-populated, hard-used IT workspace.
Here in the lab Pillai and Drew selected and ordered the segments in the trailer. Selected how? Ordered according to what aesthetic?
As I mentioned in my post on the script, connections between the voice-over and specific images in the visual stream were severed early in the process of making the trailer—before shooting began, in fact. We did not have footage of a car to accompany my words about a car, for example. We had footage of binoculars, but no binoculars in the voice-over.
When it came time to order the recorded scenes into sequences, there was no inherent connection between the moving images in our collection and the narrative. (The big exception to this dissociation is Omar as the designated companion.) The latter provided the plot, the skeleton, but the flesh of the trailer, the images and sounds, had to be added to it. How would the scenes be picked in relation to the procession of words?
Pillai believed that strong emotions would be evoked by the objects they had filmed, as if the objects themselves had feelings:
In this trailer, as the focus was on the memories invoked through objects, it was important to go by their emotions—their tears and smiles when they were touched by the sun dancing through the leaves and the breeze.
The associations of ideas and emotions with various images—did I just hear someone think, Eliot’s objective correlative?—created connections between particular elements in the narration and particular shots. Certain structures of bone belonged with certain ligaments and shapes of muscle. I’ve already written about some of Pillai’s associations between objects and feelings. Here are others that he and I discussed at one time or another.
|Lights flashing on||The fact of Joel’s suicide breaking into my blindness.|
|Ant crawling||People in their routine unable to see what’s going on because they are too engaged in their tasks, have their heads down: what I couldn’t see—that Joel was saying good-bye.|
|Shower||Interior, enclosed space of purification: the bathroom. Everything washing away.|
|Shot outside the window to the river, with flowers||Sense of life continuing.|
|Colored platter/egg coddler /flames/hands||What life does the object carry, what stories, what has Joel passed to me? But also the juxtaposition of the flames and flowers, symbols of life.|
|Pages of manuscript, stamps||Ways I haven’t let go of Joel. Ways I’ve put my arms around it.|
|Stamps floating free||Release, beginning to accept, to let go, to move with the current of time passing and water flowing.|
|Binoculars||Object that shows I am seeing in a less blinded way, less one-sided, seeing both Joel and me.|
|Omar||A companion, life, energy, the river, gifts. Restoring the idea of gift from poison to something generous.|
In assembling a sequence of sights to follow the voice-over, one can identify emotions and ideas in the right-hand column that are expressed by the spoken words, then convert them into the appropriate image in the left-hand column (Pillai, of course, didn’t work so mechanically as that). In this way he and Drew Seymour, the editor, assembled a rough order for the visual stream, such that the appropriate emotions connected to images were synchronized with specific passage in the voice-over.
There was another major consideration in the sequence of images: rhythm.
Generally one thinks of rhythm when it comes to a trailer, because it helps lead the audience into the heart of the work. Often the mainstream films prefer sensational leads, while the art film might privilege Bazinian long takes with artful dissolves.
Pillai is referring to the French film critic André Bazin. His reference to “long takes and artful dissolves” is a perfect description of the style of the trailer.
Rhythm in the sense of an alternation of types of shots was a special concern because of the intense use of extreme close-ups in filming. As Pillai put it,
At a fundamental level, editing is smooth when you have a change of scale, i.e. volume between shots, for instance, when you cut from a long shot to a mid-shot or a close-up. Or you must have a change of angles of at least 30 degrees—if you are going to cut between shots taken from almost the same position, the transition will be noticeable.
In other words, Pillai and Drew needed to avoid jump cuts. Tim, with his experience as a news cameraman, gave the example of juxtaposed head-and-shoulders shots, which look jarring. A wide shot inserted between them makes the sequence smoother.
These were the general concerns as the trailer was assembled. The macroediting was done before Richard and I saw a rough cut, and when we came to the lab to watch it, what we observed was the fine-tuning.
At the Apple touchpad was Drew, with Pillai in the director’s chair (too large, mismatched). The software was Final Cut Pro X. I wish I could provide a technical discussion of its features, but my nontechnical assessment is that it can do anything.
Drew Seymour is a graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Bio-medical Materials Science Engineering. He has been involved with producing, directing, filming, branding, editing, and social media for an eclectic mixture of projects including the punditry news show The Reaction, the life culture podcast BNF, and short documentary films. He has just completed working for the Creativity Exploratory at Michigan State University.
We observed as Pillai and Drew adjusted the shot of the swing hanging on the rope; Pillai wanted to slow down its motion. Drew played the same few seconds again and again, and I heard “school district south of San Francisco” repeatedly as they adjusted the speed of the swing. Between Pillai’s quiet voice and the noise of the air conditioner, I couldn’t understand their conversation. After repeated calibrations, Pillai nodded when it was right and said, “Yes.”
They changed the pace of a dissolve into a five-second shot of tangled tree-roots on the riverbank. Pillai, using the old vocabulary of celluloid, wanted to move the dissolve forward a few frames. Five minutes went by, ten. Finally it was right. (This shot was later eliminated altogether.)
Microediting, I soon learned, is laborious, intense, slow, minute (in Pillai’s words, “painstaking and productive, obsessive and absorbing”). We watched for an hour and a half as Pillai and Drew adjusted less than a minute’s worth of the trailer they had already been editing for several days. I now understood why editing a full-length movie takes months.
I should say something about our difficulties with sounds.
The ease with which the green ribbons on screen that represented pieces of audio (I think that’s what they were) could be manipulated sometimes led to unintended effects. Bird sounds could be dropped in willy-nilly or moved unwittingly and, said Pillai, result in “a cut-and-paste effect that I wanted to avoid.” They needed layering at more gradual levels. We also discovered that what sounded fine through low-fi speakers was no good through high-quality headphones at high volume. The birds were singing to the accompaniment of what sounded like a dishwasher. Drew applied a filter and cleaned them up.
“Bird sounds are now the leitmotif of our film,” Pillai said with a bit of avian pride. Indeed, the call of a cardinal begins it.
In one microediting session I observed, Pillai wanted the loudness of the churning water in the shower to differ in two clips, with the first quieter than the second, so the second would startle and punctuate.
There were mysterious problems; sound in one of the clips had dropped out of the sound track. A hardware/software mismatch? No one was sure. Drew returned to a backup version from yesterday’s session and pulled the clip from there.
This was the second point of punctuation in the trailer, the bird sounds being the first. How high should the peak of sound be? Over and over they played the bathroom scene, adjusting duration and volume: . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon … Dazed myself, I admired the editors’ precision and tenacity.
I’ll give over the summary words to Pillai, who brings us back from microediting to a larger viewpoint, from metadata and codecs to the poetic end of this technical practice:
In this trailer, where the focus was on extreme close-ups of objects—shot through a macro lens—in most of the shots the challenge was to work on their evocativeness to point to the rare poetic quality of the book, which is invested in the materiality of the object as the career of memory, while at the same time [the book] uses it as a point of departure to journey into the deeper recesses of the heart where guilt, anger, justification, and redemption intersect in a profound and poignant way. The shooting and editing was, therefore, dictated in the final analysis by this journey into the interiority of the narrator through exterior objects—both visual, like the egg coddler or the stamps, and sound, like the chirping of birds and the water.
Editing: to splice, to unite, heart-sound-sight.
In the fullest version of the script, produced in response to Pillai’s request for a beginning, a middle, and an end, the final lines of narration, borrowed from the Companion, mention a location for a symbolic burial: “I have found a place where I would have liked Joel to be buried. It’s a small sanctuary called La Resolana, meaning reflected sunlight. I had no right to say where Joel would be disposed. But I have rights to where I imagine him, what I do to keep myself alive and lay him to rest.”
As a conclusion to the voice-over, these words would have brought the narrative arc back to earth in a good spot. But they did not satisfy me. For one thing, they refer to a locale that couldn’t be filmed, a real place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. We trailer-makers were not going to get footage of La Resolana, and I couldn’t imagine a visual substitution, though that technique worked well in some parts of the trailer, as when red geraniums stood in for red roses.
Furthermore, the ending was wordy, introducing ideas that are important in the book but can’t be developed in a voice-over of a few hundred words. Like some other passages in the long version of the script that I discussed in the previous post, it was good on the page, not so good on the ear.
While the filming was going on, I was brewing another idea for the conclusion, built on the word companion.
Dogs have been the companions of my life, in relationships deep and abiding, untroubled by the wounds human beings sometimes inflict upon one another. When Joel came for his last visit in the October before his death, he folded himself into our ordinary daily lives, and that meant spending time with our dogs. They accompanied us everywhere, and there was no escape from their intimacy. As Larry, our golden retriever, rested nearby one night, Joel said, “It must be a great comfort to have him lying at your feet.”
His remark, which at the time seemed casual, though tinged with melancholy, has stayed with me. Joel was a being unaccompanied. The preceding April, he had written to say that he might move to the East Bay and get a dog, which he couldn’t have in his apartment in San Francisco. He had a plan—maybe no more than a fantasy—of building a new life in a less densely populated area. He would not live alone as he had for many years, but have a companion.
After Joel died, I asked myself what I could have given him that might have made a difference in his life. He had turned down our offer to relocate to Michigan and stay with us while he found work. He wouldn’t have accepted money, had we any to give. It was impossible to see him with a wife and children, a deep network of friends. But I could imagine a dog. I wanted to end the trailer by portraying such a companion.
Who else better in the role than my own Omar? He was born to be a matinee idol.
Watching the day’s rushes with Pillai and Tim one evening, I suggested this new ending. I wanted a shot of Omar running toward someone unseen, suggesting the absent Joel. Pillai agreed that it would be good to conclude with an image of life, energy, and light. Omar is almost white in color, a bounding image of light.
Our plan was to have Omar run from the house and down the flagstone path toward the river. A walnut tree that threatened power lines had been felled by Consumers Energy and lay across the path. Omar would have to jump over it on his way to the river, run past the fire circle, and go down steps, from which he would leap into the river.
It was the last sequence we filmed that day, a day full of challenge and invention. Pillai and Tim had filmed pages of drafts of the Companion scattered in the ferns and greenery; filmed through binoculars; torn sheets of stamps and set them afloat upon the river, casting away grief and hurt. It had been an exhilarating day, and then came Omar.
Pillai didn’t know what to expect from Omar, who had no training as a performer, but I had faith he would do well.
Pillai and Tim set up the camera by the river in order to capture Omar running toward it. We didn’t want his handlers to be seen—it had to appear that he was heading toward the river on his own. Richard hid behind the deck stairs, holding him back until Tim was ready. I stood near the fire ring and, when the moment came, called Omar. The first couple of takes didn’t work because Richard was seen in the background. But Omar repeated his part perfectly, bounding over the tree and past the camera and down toward the river. At last Tim managed to get a take he liked.
After that segment was captured, we let Omar continue on and jump in the river. He swam out to the middle, chasing a stick. Tim was using a tripod that didn’t allow easy tracking, but Omar walked to the right-hand edge of the camera’s view and stopped right on the mark, then turned to us for his bow. It couldn’t have been choreographed any better. A star was born!
I felt happy during this final day of shooting. The sequence with Omar embodied a spirit I tried to convey in my book—my desire to accompany Joel, to give something back to him, to give something of him to others. To be a companion.
Should a trained actress read the voice-over, or should I narrate the script myself? That was the question we needed to answer before recording the oral story in the trailer. A professional like my friend Rose Portillo would certainly give a better reading than I, more polished and more detailed. My untrained voice would exhibit deficiencies in timbre, control, and emotional tone. At the same time, there were advantages to its flaws, strengths in its weaknesses, rooted in the nature of the trailer.
We were not in pursuit of a commercially smooth product starring a glossy persona. Companion to an Untold Story is nonfiction. Though singular in structure, it is factual and based in my personal point of view. Pillai’s orientation in filmmaking is likewise documentary, and while the trailer isn’t a documentary, it borrows a style from lyric films like Bresson’s Pickpocket and Malick’s Tree of Life and applies it to nonfiction. An actress reading the voice-over would push the trailer toward fiction, toward simulation and performance. The flaws in my voice are at least my flaws, and they connect directly to the real struggles presented in the Companion.
So the rationale for hearing my voice on the trailer seemed compelling, and that was the option we chose.
When the filming of visuals was almost complete, it was time to record the narration. On another hot, humid day in a parched summer, Pillai came to the river house for that purpose, bringing with him Drew Seymour, the trailer’s editor, who was to capture bird sounds while Pillai worked with me.
I confess that I dreaded this recording session. My voice—the material instrument and the symbol of self—has a tangled history, which I’ve written about in Girl Rearing. Let’s just say that, early in life, some damage was done to my voice, and that it troubles me. Not all the sounds that birds make are beautiful and pleasing, yet I accept them with a generosity I cannot grant myself.
We recorded the narration at the river house because in that environment my voice would sound more natural than in a studio. The technical results were, I think, good—the spoken words in the trailer are clear and alive. This is so even though sound was the most gremlinized part of the whole project (on that subject, see the coming post on editing). But getting these results required a passage through a crisis caused by old baggage I carried and couldn’t put down.
Pillai positioned me on the low green bench facing the fire ring and the river behind that, with the house at my back. He and Drew set up their equipment, which, as I had discovered in prior visits, takes a long time. Everything has to be just right, and there’s always something missing or not working properly. Improvisations have to be made. The sun was bright, beating down on the white sheets of paper I held before me, bleaching out the words and glaring back at my face. My neck felt hot, and I sweated.
When the equipment was ready, Pillai said, “Imagine you are talking to someone here before you. You are trying to explain to them what happened.” He didn’t want me to be reading a script. He wanted intimacy, as if I were telling an old friend about a disturbing experience.
But, of course, I was reading a script: “The Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel …” Neither Drew nor Pillai, absorbed in technical tasks, betrayed a reaction to my disturbing experience. No one nodded in understanding or said sympathetically, “I see” or “My, that’s terrible!” I was manufacturing a voice and mood in an artificial situation. I could feel the pulse in my throat, in my face, the strain in my posture and gestures. I hurried ahead, wanting the discomfort to end.
Slow down, pause, Pillai prompted gently. The more he urged me to take it easy, the tighter I got. And that is an old story. Coaxing me to relax makes me strain harder. It’s comical, really, though none of us around the fire ring was laughing.
After several rough efforts, we took a break and marched upstairs to watch the results on the TV in our bedroom.
The person who appeared on screen wasn’t me. She didn’t match my imago, my air-brushed photo. The blasting light and heat hadn’t been flattering, let me say that. My face was slick with perspiration, and my hair stuck to my head like cooked spaghetti thrown against a wall. Every imperfection was magnified. I twitched—my eyes, my lips. I tossed my hands out like fishing line and reeled them back in. Who knew my mouth was so small and that, when uncomfortable, I did little grimaces with it. Could I not open my mouth and speak like a regular person? Not to mention the sound of my voice.
I was not a welcoming presence, gathering listeners round to hear the story of my friend. Too much quivering emotion—too pained and serious, too tortured. No one listening to me would want to read my book!
As the playback continued, I left the bedroom to stand in the hallway. I could still hear my voice, but at least I had escaped my face. Suddenly I returned to the room and in a rather hysterical tone proclaimed, “Under no circumstances should these images work their way into the trailer!” Pillai looked startled by my outburst.
Directors are more than technicians. Directors have to handle the emotional tempests of their performers, and Pillai wisely realized that one way to get control was to fix problems with the script. It was now some seven minutes long, and I had stumbled over passages that looked great on the page but, spoken aloud, were too long or literary. We needed more direct expression, turning back toward the first version of the script.
The four of us, Pillai, Drew, Richard, and I, worked away, trimming passages that were empty, clumsy, or airy: “Joel worked as a substitute teacher in a school district south of San Francisco, riding on the lip of indigence just ahead of flat broke.” The verbal phrase that begins with riding was too ornate. Cut it.
“We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had.” Subtext was professor talk. Cut the sentence.
“When almost nothing was left in Joel’s apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On November 17, a package arrived.” The precise date in November is, in the Companion, part of a detailed exposition that allows the reader to understand events and actions. In the script it was a fossil. Cut it.
After much more such editing, we went back outside. This time Pillai sat me down in a red chair on the back deck. Here we made several more recordings. I felt dizzy from the heat and stress, but I did better. Do directors sometimes break actors down, doing a scene over and over to get what they want? That was Bresson’s method, I recalled.
The material of the script remained sad and painful. There was no way to make it easier to say or hear, no way to add lightness. I felt exposed—my emotions displayed for everyone to see. My impulse was to pull back, to spare myself.
We took another break, and Richard and I talked about my complicated feelings, the need to express feeling without suffocating under it. “You need to be both personal and impersonal,” Richard suggested. “Like the book.”
Sure. No problem. How much does Meryl Streep charge for a short voice-over?
Back we went to my performance. It was late in the afternoon now and Pillai wanted to record inside to try a different quality of sound. We set up in the dining room, Pillai directly in front of me with his camera.
I realized that the slow pace and the pauses made me sound weary and sad. I had too much time to think. So in the last takes I picked up the pace. I wouldn’t call it brisk, but it was faster and cleaner. I started improvising—dropping certain parts, or just a word here and there. I felt my voice change. I no longer worried about speaking into the microphone. I started to explain myself to a friend.
By the final take we had cut the time of narration roughly in half. I had worked weeks on the script, adding fabric, building the length from two minutes to seven or eight minutes, as if sewing an ornate costume. Then in an afternoon we stripped its sleeves and skirts, and it was much more attractive.
Too short, too long, just right. Like Goldilocks finding a chair that fit her.
With the gun dropped from the script, we needed to find other images that would represent and express Joel’s death. Pillai in response turned to some gothic scenes that I wouldn’t have expected from our gentle director. Indeed, filming took a turn toward the macabre during a Sunday session of shooting—the “grim day,” Tim the cameraman recalled with relish, “the day we were going to use blood.”
Often Tim and Pillai hatched an idea as they walked about the yard and talked, and I was absent from the strategy session that inspired the haunted images of that Sunday. My only immediate contribution was to supply the red food color they used to simulate blood. I like red velvet cake, and I had on hand a bottle of dye big enough to remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The first applications of color went onto a hydrangea that struggles up an arbor—the wooden arbor that’s in the opening shot of the trailer. Pillai and Tim set the camera up close and filmed droplets of red as they fell from leaf to leaf and saturated the vine.
This was, I learned later, Tim’s idea. Bottle of dye in hand, he asked Pillai, “Do you want to drip it on the leaves?” It was pure fun, not the sort of thing Tim gets to do as a news photographer, and they let the red flow free. They poured coffee down the vine too, just to see how that would look. Immersed in the technical aspects of capturing the drops, everyone had a pretty good time, and Tim ended up with blood on his shoes.
From inside the house I watched them at work, having no grasp of their purpose. Pillai was dripping red food dye, Tim was catching the splatter. But why? Why were they recording these shots?
Heading outside to see what they were up to, I felt a little clenching in my chest. I was not a participant, yet I felt pulled into the scene—an uncanny involvement of the sort that Companion to an Untold Story describes. It’s appropriate that the image of dripping liquid in the trailer accompanies these words in the voice-over, drawn from the Companion: “Terrible things can happen in which I am implicated.”
The tightness in my chest, I now understand, expressed a loss of control, and that is what the “grim day” means most for me. Any writer whose words are converted into a visual account must experience a sort of vertigo as the written images on which she has spilled her labor and love are translated into visual terms. The images in this new version are at one and the same time hers and not hers. It is a body in which her heart beats, yet directed by an alien force.
The translation from one medium to another, this giving over of authorship, resulted in scenes in the trailer that I would not have come up with myself. The clearest example is the director’s conception of the sequence in the bathroom, the visual account of Joel’s death.
Pillai and Tim spent most of the day’s session filming it, with Richard acting as set dresser. Pillai and Tim shot the reflection of a red flowerpot in a mirror, which allowed the camera to catch the lights that run alongside the mirror, followed by a refocus to the out-of-doors. In itself, it is a peaceable image. The truly grim stuff in the bathroom was what Pillai called his “homage to Psycho.”
With hot water going full so as to steam up the glass and with droplets jetting down, Pillai used an ear syringe to dribble a bit of red in with the falling water. Tim caught the action, the diluted blood swirling round and down the drain, and then, a few seconds later, the dark red stream drifting down the glass on the right side of the frame. The filmmakers felt that this last little shock might be a bit gory. So in the next take Pillai omitted the drops down the glass and just swirled the blood in with the draining water. It was still pretty creepy though.
I didn’t realize just how central Psycho was for Pillai in this scene until I learned that he asked Richard to move his arm in and out of the shower, much as I moved my hand to pick up the top of the egg coddler, creating shadows. The shadows, I’m pretty confident, came to mind because Pillai recalled the dark shape of Norman Bates seen through the shower curtain, one of the more disturbing elements in the famous sequence in Hitchcock. (Having watched it lately, I think the gruesomest part is the sound of the knife as it mushes poor Janet Leigh’s flesh.)
Three main factors came together in motivating the trailer’s shower scene. First, we needed images that illustrated Joel’s death in the bathroom, as narrated in the voice-over. Second, Pillai had in mind this passage in the Companion: “I cry in the shower, the tears I shed flowing down the drain and underneath the city streets to the river, which runs to the lake and perhaps some sea. I can curl like a fetus on the cold floor, leaving no residue of turmoil. In bathrooms everything is washed away.” And then there was Pillai’s memory of Psycho.
I admire Hitchcock, but he is not a muse for my own style, which is by turns more lyrical and more reportorial. His movie shocks the viewer as hard as it can—the trailer is pure restraint in comparison. Even so, would I have thought of a scene showing blood in the shower? No. I made no contribution to it, other than what I wrote about a drain.
This sequence is Pillai’s visual accompaniment to the words “on that day he died.” I am not the author of this sequence, but its interpreter. Is it too much, too gothic? I’ll leave that question for other interpreters to answer. I myself find the sight and sound of water in the shower stall a powerful frame for my ironic claim: “In bathrooms everything is washed away.”
In my last post I mentioned that fortunate shots happen in filming: great images are sometimes captured through good luck of the lens. As we worked on the trailer, I also learned that there is bad luck of the lens.
In our discussions of what to film, Pillai and Tim floated many ideas on possible subjects. If the trailer project is an indication, a lot of creative thoughts in filmmaking don’t pan out. Some of ours floated away unnoticed; some we dismissed as soon as suggested; some seemed promising, but stayed forever promising, not acted on. With other objects, we took steps toward recording, but didn’t manage to put the object in front of the camera. Still others were filmed, but the results weren’t right for the trailer.
Concrete examples of these different outcomes emerge from the list of possible objects to film that Pillai sent around after a couple days of shooting:
1. Death certificate
4. Worn-out tire
9. Buddha [the one that sits before the front door of the river house]
10. Flower vase [the red flowerpot]
11. Sunflower-like piece on the wall [in the kitchen]
13. Bed (high angle, revealing the outdoor green)
14. Pan over the books
16. Backpack or leather bag of a teacher on the passenger seat of a car
Four of these items, the stamps, spoons, vase, and dogs, play a role in the final version of the trailer. But most of the objects never reached the filming stage. Tim did record footage of the death certificate, deliberately overexposing it so that only the parts in shadow were readable. He liked the results, but the certificate didn’t make it into the trailer.
The microscope, in its “blond coffin of a box,” as the Companion puts it, was among the items Joel delivered to us in his last visit. Richard hauled it out of the basement, and Tim took some shots. But the images weren’t very interesting and didn’t create the mood Pillai wanted.
Among the objects that we didn’t get in front of the camera—and in this case our efforts displayed a comic futility—was item number 5, a gun.
In the Companion I wrote about several gruesome details of Joel’s death: the bathroom where he killed himself; his tool of self-destruction, a .38 revolver; the path of the bullet; the disposition of the body. In my first stab at a script for the trailer, I included a gun in the visual stream. I imagined the camera lightly panning over it as it lay on a counter.
I am not a gun owner; I’ve never touched a gun, never entered a gun store. When I learned that Joel had used a .38 revolver, no informed images were ready in my memory bank. So fine was my ignorance, Richard suggested, that philosophers who hypothesize states of knowing nothing—Locke with his blank slate, Rawls with his original position—would have found me a useful subject in a thought experiment.
In preparing to write the Companion, I did some research, looking at the websites of gun vendors. I was surprised by how expensive guns can be—some were more than two thousand dollars. Putting aside my fear of these weapons, I saw that some were pretty—odd as that might sound. Perhaps pleasing would be a more appropriate word. Some of the revolvers were small, compact, and shapely. I imagined their weight in the palm of my hand, felt their appeal as material things. They were objects of beauty and terror, of the sort Edmund Burke studied in Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.
I never picked up any depth of knowledge about guns, but when Richard, watching an old episode of the police drama Homicide, pointed out that Detective Kay Howard packed a snub-nosed .38 revolver, I nodded wisely. It fits nicely, I thought, in a woman’s small hand.
No one ever knew Joel to own a gun prior to the one he shot himself with. Part of his death plan was figuring out what kind of gun to buy. It was a crucial part of his story, as crucial in its way as the bathroom where he died, and yet I wasn’t sure I wanted to include it in the trailer. I didn’t want to avoid the truth; nor did I want to overemphasize the physical act. The sensational has many temptations. How do you make a trailer about disturbing material without being tawdry? Is there a right way to disturb?
After discussions of these questions, the creative team wasn’t sure whether gun footage would be right for the trailer. In the end we decided to give the gun a try, see what images we landed, and make a decision later.
The hard part of putting this decision into practice was finding a gun, which isn’t a popular item in my circle of acquaintances. Richard’s brothers own pistols, but they live in California. The man across the street has guns, I suspect, but I didn’t want to involve him in the trailer project.
Pillai mentioned that a colleague at Michigan State had a student, Brett, who included a gun in a film. I got Brett’s email address and sent him a message, saying I’d heard he had a pistol: “Is it possible for me to use it briefly? Swarvanvel Pillai is making the trailer and we just want one image of the gun lying on a counter.”
Brett wrote back: “Of course you can use my gun. I have no problem with that. I am, however, concerned about how we are going to exchange the gun. I’m not in East Lansing, and I’m not sure the next time I can get up there. It is against federal law to mail any type of firearm, so that won’t work. I’m in Rochester Hills if anyone is close to there.”
Rochester Hills is on the outskirts of Detroit, about an hour and a half drive from home. Richard and I talked over whether it was worth traveling there to pick up a gun we weren’t sure would be used in the trailer. Was it even legal to transport a gun for which I had no permit? On the other hand, there was a Patti Smith exhibit in Detroit.
I emailed: “I appreciate your willingness to loan me the gun. So weird, I just have to say that. I’ve never held a gun or been around guns, so this is out of my comfort zone. Would it be convenient for me to drive to where you are this weekend sometime to pick it up? I was thinking of seeing the Patti Smith exhibit at the Detroit Institute of the Arts anyway. I could stop by afterwards if that suited. The museum is open on Saturday and Sunday.”
Brett replied, “I’m not going to be able to get to Detroit over the weekend because I work all day every day. I know I’m not being very helpful, but I don’t have any free time over the summers. … The only option is MAYBE Sunday night in Detroit. I’ll have to check my schedule. Again, I’m sorry I’m being so difficult, I just have a real tight schedule.”
I hadn’t meant for him to drive to Detroit, but for me to drive to Rochester Hills from Detroit. However, it didn’t matter because, as he added, “It’s not a real gun. … It is an airsoft gun, so it fires, but not live rounds. …Another option, if you want, is to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and purchase one yourself. They are around 50 dollars.”
Fifty dollars was less than the cost in time and gas of a trip to Rochester Hills. So the next day, a July scorcher, Richard and I drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Meridian Mall. A cheerful young woman wearing a brown Dick’s employee uniform was standing near the entrance, ready to help customers find their way around the big store.
“Hi,” Richard said. “We’re looking for airsoft pistols.”
There was a momentary fleck in the young woman’s eyes that said, You don’t look like the sort of people who buy airsoft pistols. Who is this for? Is it for your grown-up son? Why doesn’t he come into the store and buy the gun himself?
I flecked back, It’s stranger than you realize. We’re making a book trailer.
Following the young woman’s directions, we took the escalator and located the selection of airsoft weapons. There were pistols, but no revolvers. That was okay—we were not literalists about the gun. But the pistols didn’t look very realistic, even to my ignorant eye. Big letters on the side said “Magnum.” Even if it had said “Colt” or “Smith & Wesson,” this was all wrong—it’s the sort of thing you plaster on the side of a toy. Worse, the tip of the barrel had a small projection in unmistakable plastic optic orange.
I guessed this was a design strategy to make sure that any would-be robber who waves an airsoft pistol in the face of a bank clerk will get a chuckle, not cash.
Richard, doubtfully turning the plastic package in his hands, said, “Maybe we could paint the tip black.”
Still, the pistol was cheaper than expected, $39.99, and we could return it to the store if Pillai said it was no good. Clutching my receipt, I followed Richard out to the very hot parking lot of Dick’s Sporting Goods. We got into our very hot car.
The car wouldn’t start. The battery was dead.
We are longtime members of AAA in good standing, but we have never made use of the club’s convenient roadside assistance. Now at last our prudence was going to pay dividends, with a jump-start just a quick phone call away.
Except that neither of us had brought along his cell phone. (The male pronoun here feels so right.)
Richard proposed that I walk home to call AAA while he waited with the car. I hustled the mile and a half through the heat and, good and sweaty, phoned AAA. The kind woman on the other end sounded concerned, and she carefully gathered information about the location of the vehicle, the nature of the mechanical problem, and other pertinent facts. She had just dispatched the rescue truck when Richard walked in the front door, having gotten a jump-start from the security staff at the mall.
The next day, when I showed the plastic pistol to the crew, Tim couldn’t stop laughing over how seriously wrong this gun would look if you tried to film it, and Pillai for the first time showed a fleck in the clear glass of his faith in me. They’d want a close-up of the gun, not some long shot from far, far away that would disguise a toy. It would jump off the screen that this was a fake.
We took the gun back to Dick’s. And that is the complete story of my pistol ownership.
We gave up on filming a gun, for I had resolved that I didn’t want the image in my trailer—it didn’t fit with my sense of restraint. Pillai moved on to other representations of Joel’s death, which I’ll describe in the next post.
Filming was done primarily in early evenings during July. Tim Schafer, the cameraman, had to attend to his job as a news photographer during working hours, and in any case Pillai wanted to take advantage of the slant natural light available later in the day.
To pick up a theme—Stuff I Didn’t Know About—that runs through these posts, I was surprised by the camera Tim pulled out of his bag on the first day of shooting. I expected something like the cameras I’ve seen moviemakers and journalists use, not a 35 mm SLR. As Tim explained, however, the Canon Rebel T2i is capable of excellent visuals in movie mode. It is not meant for high-end sound recording, but that was no problem for our purposes, since we weren’t planning to include much diegetic sound. Tim’s camera was the means by which noises of the bathroom shower and Omar’s panting were captured—I’ll comment on these scenes in later posts—but most of the audio was obtained by other devices.
Tim began by taking still photographs to capture moments and investigate the light both inside and outside the house. It was great, he said, to see so much wildlife and vegetation, for there would be many opportunities to catch striking patterns of movement, light, and shadow as the sun filtered through the trees. Although most of these first images were exploratory, one shot did make it through the final cut, an extreme close-up of a painting over the fireplace.
When I saw this slice of the painting in the trailer, I did not recognize the object I saw. Was that rough surface, I wondered, the trunk of the old crab apple in the backyard, spray-painted blue by Consumers Energy to indicate that its branches needed to be trimmed away from power lines? In this instance I re-experienced one of the issues explored by the Companion: how our things become invisible to us, and re-visible through the attention of camera or words.
Timothy H. Schafer is a graduate of Michigan State University in creative writing and telecommunications. He also studied journalism at Wayne State. “I like my job at [television station] WLNS-TV, where I am a photographer, but I don’t watch the news much,” Tim says. “I still write some poetry. Jack Gilbert is probably my favorite poet. I don’t read as much as I’d like. I’d like to be a better cook.”
Pillai wanted to shoot a good deal of the footage in extreme close-up, using a macro lens. His idea, I believe, was to create an Expressionist sort of emotional intensity through such images. Several scenes in the finished trailer testify to the success of this approach.
The macro lens presents some technical problems, or to put it better, offers a different set of visual circumstances to work with. The depth of space within focus is shallow, so that any moving subject becomes blurred. This effect can be used to advantage, as in the scene in the trailer in which a solitary ant crawls over a rough, woody surface, most of the time out of focus, and only briefly in the lens’s sweet spot. My experience, as I watch this segment, is one of wanting that ant to crawl into focus so I can see it clearly. Here another concern of the Companion comes up: how to see things aright before it is too late.
The Companion mentions the “lady luck of language,” and the filming taught me something about the luck of the lens. You have an idea about what to shoot, Tim told me, and you try to capture something that’s available only for a moment. Before the scene of the lone ant occurred, we noticed many ants scurrying about a log that he tried to record but couldn’t get. Having moved on to other shots, he happened to spot our ant, set up his camera, and recorded the insect’s wandering motions. The ant struts and frets its seconds upon the stage, and then is seen no more, making a dramatic exit out of sight over the far edge of the wood.
More good fortune came our way with the stamps, which, as the Companion describes, were one of the final items Joel gave us. Pillai, ever interested in the river, thought to launch a page from a book of stamps that would float downstream and make an evocative subject. The sheet of paper, however, proved to be a frail watercraft and drifted half-submerged under the surface, where it couldn’t be filmed. Richard—formally co-producer of the trailer, less formally my husband—fished it out of the water, and Pillai tried again, with no better results. But this time the page got caught in a branch just off the riverbank twenty feet downstream. Trying not to touch the poison ivy, Tim crawled through the underbrush, set up his camera, and filmed individual stamps loosening from the page, another scene that appears in the final cut of the trailer.
Pillai and Tim, as I’ve said, wanted to use natural light. The egg coddler, another of Joel’s objects, had to be filmed inside if it was to appear in a logical setting. The filmmakers first tried the room’s electric lights, but, preferring something less artificial looking, lit candles, which flickered warmly in the coddler’s reflective porcelain. They filmed my hand as I removed the top of the coddler, to accompany the words in the voice-over: “After cooking his egg, did he hold the empty coddler in his hand, still warm like a living thing?” It is, I think, a powerful, expressive sequence.
Emphasis on the natural extended to use of the objects themselves, including binoculars. Tim shot many objects; with the binoculars, he wanted to shoot using the object. The resulting point of view, he mentioned, might connect to the point of view through or into the barrel of a gun (a post on the gun is on the way!). In the stationary shot in the trailer, this perspective isn’t an illusion created in editing; the shot was actually taken through binoculars.
In movies, the illusion of looking through binoculars is invoked by two circles of vision surrounded by black, as in the greatest of through-the-binoculars movies, Rear Window. Of course, two circles are not what you see through binoculars—you see a single circle. And that’s what you see in the trailer.
Not all of this happened on the first day of filming, but I recall the moment at the end of that day when Tim loaded his footage onto my computer. I saw things I had never seen before, though again and again the subjects had performed their acts before my eyes.
I watched on my monitor as an orange and white clownfish windsock that hangs from the back deck of the house turned slowly on its axis in a quiet current of air, as if bearing a hidden spirit.
The camera had done its magic and made me see.