Corruption and Beauty #3 - Bridgegate
Last week a friend and I were siiting around my place enjoying a rare slice of time between our overdriven schedules. The conversation somehow landed on a recent subject that has been sitting on top of the Google news page - so called "Bridgegate". In case you don't know, this is about New Jersey governor and Replublican presidential hopeful, Chris Christie. Most recently he is getting slammed for allegedly being part of an administrative fiasco that ended up closing lanes on the George Washington bridge during rush hour. If you've ever had the nerve-wracking experience of being stuck in a traffic jam with a raging horde of pissed off New York drivers, you can relate and imagine the fallout and bad PR for his political goals.
This situation has since resulted in dozens of subpeonas for his underlings, and charges by local New Jersey mayors that the Governorr's office allowed the bridge to happen as retribution for their refusal to contribute to his campaign, or worse, not agreeing to certain pending government contracts. Our discussion of this took a sudden right turn when my friend asked me, "Hey Geoff, from a filmmaker POV - suppose you had the gig of writing and/or directing a short docudrama on this. How would this fit into your Corruption and Beauty framework you're writing about? What would be the establishing shot?"
I stood up and paced around a little, which is generally what I do when the little electric creative jolts start to happen. I'm waiting for a visual, some sweeping epic shot, or uber dramatic angle on the bridge to appear. But another part of my brain kicks in and takes over. "When people see this film, at the final frame", I said, " what do you want them to feel about this situation? Anger toward the bullying politician using his priveledged position of public service abusively? So...don't just sit there-stand up and fight?!" My friend commented that to do this our moral arrow would best be aimed at the Governor and his crew.
But first, I'm not a political guy, and more importantly, this idea didn't sit right with me as a storyteller. My first impulse is to connect with the audience emotionally, empathically in a way that moves them, rather than compells them to take action. The real issue here is how did this bridge debacle affect the lives of the people? The stockbroker who relies on that bridge for getting to work each day and every wasted second is dollars lost. What if there was a wedding in Manhatten and the bride and groom were stuck in that mess, or the person with the ring? How about a wounded soldier just back from a tour in Afghanistan and his family can't be there for his surprise party?
Suddenly I felt the whoooosh! as the creative juices ignited like a can of kerosine. We start with a small formation of birds, flying...gliding... through a hazy New York sky. Harmony, order, tranquility - nature in perfect balance. Then trail down to the bridge - almost surrealistically stretched between the land masses of the two states it connects. Like the birds, a design masterpiece doing exactly what it was intended to do. As we zoom in, the raw details start to appear in focus - rows of cars jammed bumper to bumper, people wandering up and down screaming at each other, rumbling diesel motors of every size truck from tractor trailers to graffiti covered delivery vans. And flashing red and blue lights. Police cars and most noticably an ambulance. Zoom into the vehicle and through the back door past the two EMTs desperately trying to sustain the life of a little girl. The wailing of sirens outside. The story unfolds from there, juxtaposed against the beuracratic entities in their lofty chambers who are responsible indirectly, or in this case directly for this child's life. One valuable thing the audience might take away would be to never let this happen again, or the next time it might hit closer to home than reading about someone else's preventable tragedy on Google.
In my mind, a film gains strength when it stands for something important, but doesn't prosteletize. That way there is space for the audience to create their own theories and conclusions more from the heart, while hopefully being entertained and stimulated.
Corruption and Beauty #1
A few years ago, I had the great good fortune of working with four-time nominated and Academy Award winning documentary film maker Malcolm Clarke. He is currently nominated for his latest film "The Lady in Room #6", and after working with him on a film called "Pig Farm" I understand the reasons why he is praised by critics and peers.
I was hired by Malcolm as Cinematographer on "Pig Farm" despite the studio's protests over hiring me, due to my shortage of credits at that point. Malcolm fought to bring me in and succeeded based on my film "Call It Karma", which I directed and shot on location in Tibet. Now you're probably wondering what the hell "Pig Farm " was about. OK...get ready and I hope you haven't eaten yet. The film was based on the true story of a mass murderer in Vancouver, who over the years murdered 49 prostitutes, then chopped up their bodies and fed them to his pigs - which he then chopped up and sold as meat to the people of Vancouver.
To achieve the right setting and feel for this grisly scenario, we shot on some of the vilest, seediest and disgusting locations imaginable on the East side of Vancouver. This being a network of dank, dark streets and urine-soaked back alleys populated by a swollen, festering hive of more drug addicts and desperate individuals than anywhere in the world. It is literally a city sector of zombies, ragged, torn beat-up, mangled souls somehow existing on the barest survival level. I watched young women with witch's skin so crusted and infected it would peel off if they scratched too hard. I could hear rats squealing as they fought for the blood- soaked tie-off rag from an addict sprawled behind the dumpster. Malcolm, however, pushed on through this decrepit wasteland searching for the perfect settings for our tale, his eyes soaking up the squalor that together we would magically transform into art.
At one point we were in this prostitute's apartment. I would have covered my mouth and nose with my scarf, like some NATO grunt discovering a mass grave, but somehow in my polite Canadian way I didn't want to insult her. The windows hadn't been opened in years, which further sealed in the cigarette smoke, along with mold and mildew from the constantly damp Vancouver air. Malcolm turned to me as I cought my breakfast in my throat. "So, Geoff - what do you think?" I sprang into action as he put his sandwich down on her pill strewn coffee table.
Fortunately, I was able to quickly adapt. I knew that if I could light this a certain way, it would actually enhance the essence of what I previously saw as frightening, vomit-inducing and ugly. Not just enhance it, but embrace it while visually extracting the prana, or life force out of it. And I knew that if I could succeed at this, it would help Malcolm capture the pain, and ultimately the empirical truth of the situation. With this in mind during the course of the shoot, I was able to set a mood and tone that the producers would later refer to as "hauntingly beautiful". This may not have happened the way it did if Malcolm had not given me my "mantra" - Geoff, make every frame a Rembrandt. Every frame a Rembrandt. Every frame....
Touch The Wild #2 - PSA
One of my favorite assignments as a member of the film industry is working on PSA spots. When the call comes, my body and my heart jump simultaneously at the chance to put something out there that might help make a difference in the world. Basically I love people and am stimulated by the things they are excited about and believe in. I have not had the "benefit" of an elite upbringing in private schools and all that, and to be truthful I'm not necessarily sure it's a benefit.
The empathic exchange I feel with people who are advocating good causes comes from my actual hard-knocks, street level experience around the world. I have spent time with people broken and homeless, children in orphanages, Tibetan monks in the Himalayas and dozens of other life alterating experiences that I'm psyched to write about in this blog. When I work with celebrities who champion these causes, these sometimes hard-core experiences help to break down the walls. I sense that these people feel I am 100% behind them on the heart level. A good example of this is a PSA shoot I did a while back for UNICEF featuring Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson. The primary emphasis of this spot was for Tom Hanks to acknowledge and honor George Harrison's humanitarian work for UNICEF. The spot would then be used for promotion of an award gala that was to be held in New York City.
In my mind, Tom Hanks is one of the world's greatest actors. I'll try not to overdo here the incredible amount of gratitude I felt for being in the priviledged and blessed position of directing him. One of his latest films, Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, is an example of what would be my dream come true if I were to direct. On raw location, powerful story and well...Tom Hanks. First of all, the man really needs little direction since he is the consummate actor in every way. He has a gentle, but commanding presence and natural charisma that almost belies the need for lighting. But in the less metaphorical sense, Mr Hanks has an office where all interviews and shoots such as this happen. Complete with, believe it or not, a typewriter. My challenge was to do something different than the many sequences that have taken place with him in the past, using basically the resources at hand.
My first impulse was to change the set. Shift the location to possibly another office, or area of the building. I think a combination of my enthusiasm, respect and ability to create a bridge between us softened the situation to the place where we were all creatively pliable, and everyone agreed. Life itself is an improvisation, and the best actors know this. Even with a script on a teleprompter, they are usually open to what magic that can occur from even the slightest shift in detail.
I took away a lot from that experience, which helped me tremendously in subsequent PSA spots for ASPCA featuring Roberta Flack and many others. People, especially actors will let their guard down when yours is down as well. The time spent with them in actual scenes is at times relatively brief, and has to radiate out more than what is written on the script. There is a human element that projects thru the vital subtext, but only if it is allowed by the director to shine.
Corruption and Beauty #2 - Mygeria
I've always wanted to shoot films in unique and foreboding locations. I've been to the Niger Delta twice, and each time it strengthened the idea that this area of the world's landscape was the perfect setting for two films I've been developing. It would also satisfy my deep desire to actually create a complex and sensitive story tapestry that organically weaves into the native tapestry that is already there- and has been there since possibly the first human walked this Earth. It's not just the making of a film that burns in me, but the excitement to invent characters that resonate with the common emotions and need for love that we all share; Since there is possibly no more corrupt place on Earth than Nigeria, it is also the perfect setting to challenge my skills to submerse the audience in both the decadence that permeates the landscape and the beautiful light that shines through the eyes of the people, especially the children, like a homing beam to the soul.
MyGeria is the story of Ryan Stayput, a young man living in LA who has become "poisoned by protection" -encapsulated by his lucrative career as an animator. A man who creates his own worlds, bounded by his fear of going beyond his safe, and self-created cartoon-like emotional fortress. All this begins to metamorphisize when he receives a package containing the ashes of his father, and a letter from a priest in Nigeria telling him he must come immediately to some church way out in the dense, Nigerian bush. Every guy knows the emotional "daddy" trigger can be like the trigger to an AK-47, and this is no different. Ryan barely knew the man that left him, rather abandoned him and his mother at age eight. The fearless adventurer who could hunt tigers in Nepal, but not change a baby's diaper. With that question burning, Ryan tears himself from the LA grid and books a flight to Nigeria to return the ashes to a church in the bush. This is what I call "hopping the train from point A to point B" in the story - simple enough. But what unfolds is a powerful journey of healing that not only tears down those fortress walls, but opens Ryan's eyes to another layer, a higher octave of his own humanity.
Ryan is soon immersed in the hell that modern day Nigeria has become. An intoxicating stink that will push even young children to the limits of moral sanctity. He is kidnapped, beaten, alone and scared to death - not just a fish out of water, but a fish hanging on the hook ready to be eaten alive. His survival is dependent on following the voices and light that whisper and peer through the cracks of broken lives - a light that is magnetically pulling you back to innocence. And that is exactly what he finds when he eventually reaches the church in the bush. Not just a church, but an orphanage filled with young children that his father founded thirty years ago. Enveloped in their laughter and singing, he decides to stay with the children. This place reveals a mirror of his own innocence and a catalyst for his forgiveness to the man that also orphaned him as a child.
In MyGeria, I hope to reveal to the mainstream audience another side of Nigeria that most of us do not get to see. My goal is to present amoving and exciting story moving story with characters that help us to transcend our pre-judgements based on what we've seen or read in news stories. In this way, I hope to do as an artist what politicians and educators fail to do - which is to inspire people to connect with things that we do not understand at first - and may even find repulsive. In that way, my story acts as a medium through which beauty can shine its full light and reveal to the eye of the consciousness that which is already connected.
I want this blog to be about the person who is the filmmaker rather than Geoff Browne the filmmaker. People have told me I'm a complex person. That may be true as there is always a lot going on up there due to the fact that I'm fascinated by all the POVs and angles that one can view any person or situation.light and frame a If I wasn't, then I'd be somewhat useless behind the camera. But the truth is, my main focus is always on simplicity. The simplicity of beauty that is often frozen and transparent in the midst of chaos and corruption. That is what drives me when I shot. First I allow beauty to frame me in its innate stillness...then I frame the shot.
This is not always easy - in fact, depending on the material and subject matter, many times it is a gut-wrenching challenge that at times pushes me to the barriers of my sanity while compelling me to expand my limited perceptions of how things should be.
They Used To Call me Space Cat #2 - Aba-Snatch-Ta
What exactly is Aba-Snatch-ta you might be wondering? It is a country in Africa that does not exist. Except in the recesses of my memories and the memories of several unsuspecting classmates in my high school - and one flabbergasted, but very cool World Religion teacher.
Over several months after my return for California, even though I was grounded, I began to become increasingly aware of my love for storytelling. Especially this acute, growing desire to tell stories through short films, acting or pure improvisation.
My third semester World Religion class was where the first manifestion of this reared its head. My teacher had us pick a subject based on World Religions. We were told that we had from March to June to write a detailed paper, which would ultimately determine our final grade. Not being thrilled by that prospect, I quickliy shot up my hand. "Sir", I began, "I would like to do an actual physical presentation based on my recent trip with the Aba-Snatch-ta tribe in Africa. There are lots of amazing and cool things I shared and learned from the tribe that I just can't describe on paper". To back me up, two of my friends said they went with me and would also like to participate. Delighted, my teacher agreed, completely unaware of the spontaneously fabricated story.
Over the following months, everyone was pouring over encyclopedias burning the midnight oil researching their subjects, while my buddies and I were kicking back in the dorm (it was a boarding school) playing hot games of Hearts. As the school year was winding up, my teacher reminded me that my presentation was due in a few days.
The day of the presentation, I flew across the campus to grab some photos from a girlfriend of mine who had recently been to Africa with her parents. My friends grabbed a couple of _ from Mexico and we got psyched for what would be a 45 minute spiel of well...pure bullshit. Standing outside the classroom door, I told my teacher we had devised a special entrance, so please get everyone seated and ready. My buddies and I quickly ripped off our shirts, socks and shoes - which was pretty radical since this was a school where the dress code was shirts, ties and jackets at all times. Ten seconds to blast off and I was still trying to figure out what the hell to do. Screw it we thought as we grabbed the Mexican _______ and danced our way into the room, singing and chanting in a totally fake language.
Everyone loved it, especially the teacher. In fact, he was so enthusiastic that he asked us to do it for another class! With our confidence building and raw teenage adrenaline flowing, we got another friend to dress up as an Aurora ( name of the city we lived in) Cable TV guy who would come and film us live with his video camera. This totally made our teacher's day which inspired him to "request" that we also perform in two weeks for the Aurora old folks home.
Unlike the classroom filled with my friends where I felt no fear, I have to admit, this old folks home was out of my element and made me really nervous. To compound that, on the way in we saw a huge billboard that said something like "Tonight! Geoff Browne's Africa Presentation". This was also decorated with cutouts of various zebras, elephants and jungle beasts.But it wasn't the 50 or so geriatrics that got me nervous. It was the fact that their children were also there, including many well-heeled and educated young professionals from the Aurora area. How quickly would this illusion melt before their eyes I thought as we started. Soon, the old "Screw it" zone took over and I got the idea to tell them that most of the rituals took place around a big fire. No, I didn't build one, but I dug down deep into my cache of summer camp fire songs and came up with the perfect one for a sing-a-long - Kumbaya!
I went from wheelchair to wheelchair with a mic, Phil Donahue style - "Someone's sleeping...Kuuuumbaaayaaaa!!! It was wonderful and I was able to milk this for at least ten minutes.
Now, twenty years later, I am able to look back and see how badly I wanted to touch the wild, and that is exactly what I have done from then until now. More to come...from Geoff Browne, aka Space Cat.
The Actor In Me #1