Bad Beginnings

      "Here’s the deal,” my son Max explained last August.   “It doesn’t make any sense, but in order to take Narrative Film making, I have to take Documentary first semester—even though I have no interest in documentaries.  Everyone in the class has to submit a documentary proposal by the end of the week. Then we vote, and the top three get filmed.  I’d much rather direct my own movie than work on somebody else’s, but it’s a lot of work.  Should I send in a mediocre documentary proposal and just hope I can direct my narrative film second semester?”

     “Send your best work.  Always,” I add. “If you don’t, and your screenplay isn’t chosen, you’ll be upset.  You’ve waited three years for the chance to direct a film.  You have just two opportunities. Don’t throw away one of them.” 
     Max proposed a movie about a local celebrity, Billy Name, who is Andy Warhol’s former lover, photographer, and the leader of the Factory.  “I’m going to call it, “Fifteen Minutes of Name.”
     "You’re going to win whether you like it or not,” I predict.           

     “Why do you think so?” Max asked.

      “Because the Warhol era is cool, and your title makes it sound like fun.  I bet the other screenplays will all be serious topics, like under-privileged kids, or an expose on politicians and government.”
      A few days before college, Max learned “Fifteen Minutes of Name” had been chosen for production.  “The good news is I won. The bad news is I got the film crew from hell.  Theresa has no idea how to edit.”

     “How did you get stuck with her?”

     “Mom, the teacher assigned her to me.”

     “Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think…”
      Actually, my son’s film crew turned out to be worse than he thought.  Max complained all semester:  “Mom, you don’t understand, editing is one of the biggest jobs.  Theresa’s doing nothing. Even when she tries, it’s so bad, I have to redo it. ”

     “Well, can’t the rest of your team help you?   They’re getting graded on the movie too.”

     “It’s MY movie, Mom.  I’m the one who’s responsible.  I don’t even have a producer like all the other teams, so I’m going to have to do all the research, set up all the interviews and make all the arrangements. It’s so UNFAIR,” he complained.
     “Life IS unfair,” I remind him. “We have to make the best of it.”

     For Max, this meant he had to direct, produce and edit his film, while still carrying a full academic load, which included writing a novella.  I always thought the job of a producer was to raise money, and since no funds were necessary, this didn’t seem like a big deal. But I was wrong 

     “Mom, I have to find other people to interview, besides Billy.  I need to have an art expert on the Warhol era.  Plus I have to locate people who were part of the Factory scene, who are alive and willing to be interviewed, and then I have to coordinate with my cinematographer and sound person.”
      By Thanksgiving Max was in a panic.  He and his film crew would have to work all weekend.  Karen, one team member who lived in Wyoming, would stay with us.  The bathroom my son shares with his sister Sarah was already cluttered with his-and-hers cosmetics.  When Karen asked Max to make room for her toiletries, he replied nonchalantly.

     “No, I’m not cleaning.” 

     According to Max, Karen was horrified and burst into tears, and said she didn’t feel welcome. 

     “I told her SHE was welcome, but her criticism wasn’t.  She didn’t take it well.”

     As Max tells it, the next day was worse.  They were interviewing someone for the movie when Max noticed the sound wasn’t working properly.  He asked Karen about it, and she told Max he was being unprofessional for mentioning a technical difficulty in front of the subject. Afterward, Max countered with his own complaints, and Karen ended up spending the night elsewhere.
     At the end of this weekend—which Max assured me was only a small taste of the hellish collaboration with his film crew—Karen forgot a piece of equipment on site at an interview.  The interview had occurred on West 29th Street and 9th Avenue, inconvenient for transportation from our home on the Upper East side.  Max asked his Dad if he would mind driving him over to pick it up.

     “What am I, the chauffeur?” Henry quipped.  “Karen’s the one who left it. Tell her to go get it.”

     “But she doesn’t know her way around.  She’ll get lost…”
     “You’re 22,” Henry said.  “You can figure it out.”

     Henry had already agreed to drive Max and his crew back up to school with all the heavy film equipment. This is four hours round-trip; Henry wanted to leave by 2 pm so he didn’t have to drive back in the dark.  The other team member was waiting in our lobby at 2 pm, but Karen had gotten lost retrieving the forgotten equipment and was running late.

     At 2:20, Max called to warn her that we were leaving. Karen told him she was walking down our block,  “You don’t understand,” my son said. “My Dad’s not waiting.  Run, don’t walk.”

     We had already pulled away from the curb, but the traffic light turned red.  As we waited for the green light, Karen stumbled into our car, huffing and puffing.

     In the end, Max edited most of the film himself, digitally splicing eight hours of film into 23 minutes.  In addition to spending part of every weekend talking with Billy Name and sorting through his photographs, Max had set up interviews with Factory super stars Ivy Nicholson (a model who’d starred in some of Warhol’s films) and Ultra Violet (former Salvador Dali mistress) and found pictures of them as beautiful young models to contrast with the old ladies they had become. He also arranged interviews with art historian Douglas Crimp and Serendipity owner Steven Bruce, who had met Warhol and sold his work before he was famous.  For background music, he used Nico and the Velvet Underground. Somehow he also wrote 60 pages of his novella and took three other classes.

     Max was more sleep deprived than during any other semester.   Nobody in the class thought his film would ever be finished—let alone any good. And everyone knew his group was not getting along.  Max was not winning any popularity contests, and did not end up directing a narrative film second semester.  Instead, he decided to drop the class and work one-on-one with his professor on a TV pilot.

     I don’t know what (if anything) will become of the pilot. But “Fifteen Minutes of Name” was chosen for the Kingston Film Festival and won an Accolade Merit Award.  As a result of my son’s stellar work on this film, his professor recommended him to a friend to edit her documentary—a great part-time job—while he looks for full-time work.

At the Kingston Film festival this past weekend, my son spoke eloquently during the question and answer session after the screening.  In a tone of near-wonder, Max described what he’d learned about the process of film making and about the beauty of a documentary.
     “It’s not like writing a script for a narrative film, where you control the story. You can’t impose your will on a documentary or choose a direction.  If the people you interview aren’t interested in your questions, you have to follow their interests. Sometimes you have let your subject open up and just let the story unfold.”

     From bad beginnings (and middles), sometimes a story ends surprisingly well.

               

 

 

               

 

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