“The Best Education in Film is to Make One” or How Edwin Nieves Followed Kubrick’s Principle
I am pleased and honored to introduce today’s guest post by none other that @eanieves, the filmmaker and peer behind the excellent tumblr A Bitter Sweet Life who is currently in post-production for his short film, ‘The Gift‘. The making of The Gift follows a personal and rich journey that Edwin shares with us below as he works toward completing his film thanks to donation (a choice he explains below).
Hop on the inspirational train:
“The best education in film is to make one.”
Certainly, Stanley Kubrick knew what he was talking about. As a film director, he has forever made his mark on cinema through his artistic and technical abilities in filmmaking. And how did he start?
Transitioning from several short documentaries, he directed the low-budget Fear and Desire, his first feature film which he directed, produced, shot, and edited. What did he learn? Shooting the film without sound, he must have realized the need to record sound if only to use the recordings as a blueprint for the post-production audio work. Editing a scene in which a soldier throws a plate of beans and breaks the 180-degree rule by entering the next shot on other side of the frame, he must have realized the need to keep the edit in mind. Still, Albert Einstein once described experience as the only source of knowledge, and we only have to watch those Kubrick classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and others to acknowledge that with experience Kubrick honed his filmmaking skills.
The quote reflects too the beginning of what was to become The Gift, a short film that blended the desire to make a film and the need to learn more about filmmaking. I agreed with Drive and Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn when he explained that a film director is someone who knows a little about everything. At the time, the screenwriter within was making its transformation into film director, and since I felt film school was not a viable option for me, I understood that filmmaking itself would be my film school.
“What film can I make with the tools and resources readily available to me?”
This question was the basis for The Gift. I was working on a crime/thriller feature-length screenplay that would be useful for this endeavor and remembered a college philosophy course on morals and ethics, specifically the classes on the honorable act. Stripping the screenplay to its bare bones, I found a story that focused on a broken man whose life is made better when he befriends a child with a unique and wise perspective on life despite her innocence. She saves him from his torment, but when she is kidnapped, the question becomes “How will he save her?”
So The Gift became about honor and sacrifice, human connection, and the transient nature of life, with each of these elements affecting the cinematic scheme and aesthetics of the story which followed our protagonist on his “journey with fate.” The storytelling would make use of film language by taking on what I deemed a spiritual point of view to the story, one that would mirror our protagonist’s human experience of that “journey.” Prior to filmmaking, I was interested in writing that reflected the human experience, and as a student of French Literature, I grew to admire Marcel Proust, the writers of the Nouveau Roman such as Marguerite Duras, and J.M.G. Le Clézio who wrote an introduction to a book on filmmaking by Robert Bresson, a film director I hold in high regard along with Andrei Tarkovsky. If these writers were experimenting with an art form that was thousands of years old, then certainly one could experiment with the youthfulness of cinema. As Tarkovsky noted, “In our profession, everything depends on the extent of how interesting you make your narration.” In addition, this stylistic choice to approaching the story would also benefit the making of the film–by focusing on one individual.
Thinking about the shooting for The Gift, the words “resourceful filmmaking” come to mind. Everything was shot guerrilla-style. Each shoot was improvised on location. I rarely went over four takes, even used only one take for many shots. As for the shots themselves, I tried to see what the location offered and concentrated on translating the emotional weight of the story into an image using that environment. In regards to the actors, I trusted them to learn their lines but during filming requested that they express them in their own words. They may have still delivered the lines as written, but this created an atmosphere of comfort and in turn even led to useful improvisation. As far as their performances, it was more about molding what they offered of themselves. The Gift also became a course in editing. It gave me an understanding of the process and shed light on its overall importance to the filmmaker. As the only art unique to filmmaking, it has influenced my writing, directing, and shooting since I approach each of these with an alertness for the visual and audio presentation of the story.
“The best education in film is to make one,” said Stanley Kubrick, “I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer. There are a lot of non-creative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc. It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered, artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential.” Those final lines in Kubrick’s statement are very important.
— Seed&Spark (@seedandspark) March 12, 2014
The Gift also gave me an awareness of the many challenges and obstacles faced with the creation of a film, regardless of its length. If you work in film and video production, you have probably met that phrase “budget constraints” and gotten to know it well. However, there is a simple triangle diagram that every independent filmmaker should memorize. Envision the triangle with the word “Good” at the top corner, “Cheap” at the left-bottom corner, and “Fast” at the right-bottom corner. Three equations come from this diagram: Fast + Cheap = Not Good, Fast + Good = Not Cheap, Cheap + Good = Not Fast. To realize where you fall among these equations offers a good sense of your film’s production and a backdrop for a plan of attacking it. It is also essential to note that even when the film is finally finished, the process continues with the promotion and marketing of the work.
A film requires a creative mind in both artistic and business fields. This emphasizes the fact that the most important tool in filmmaking is not a piece of equipment but you yourself. As I enter the final phase in the making of The Gift, I look at what is ahead–final sound work, film festivals, promotion, etc.–with a mind wanting to learn more. It has certainly been a long journey since I first hit that red button on my Canon Rebel T2i with Pascal Yen-Pfister in Brooklyn. What were some of the factors aside from the budget that prolonged a quick completion of the project? After shooting and editing The Gift, I traveled and remained in France for a few months where I exercised my filmmaking muscles with two silent short films. When I returned to New York, I completed my Masters in French Literature. During this time certain difficulties forced me to take a more hands-on approach to the other stages in production. I learned to color correct/grade and sound edit though eventually found a collaborator in sound design and music composition with whom I have had the fortune to elevate The Gift. In addition, the simple act of showing examples from the project led to opportunities to work as director of photography and editor on several projects that ranged from the commercial to creative narratives. Still, I never lost the sense of the promise The Gift offered as a film and the importance it held to my “film school” experience.
As a film about the honorable, I too want to honor the original idea of releasing The Gift for free online. For this to become a more immediate possibility, I have also launched a fundraising campaign to raise funds for costs such as the final phase in sound work. I have opted for a donation system rather than launching a campaign on a platform such as Kickstarter. The reason? Since I experimented with The Gift in terms of shooting and editing, for example, why not experiment with this aspect of production. Further, I wish to save the chance of crowdfunding for a future project I have in store and launch that campaign through Seed & Spark, a wonderful resource for independent filmmakers with so much potential. The campaign for The Gift offers gifts for donors with additional possibilities to receive credits on the film as well.
What started as a simple exercise in filmmaking led from one working opportunity in film and video production to another while enhancing both vision and technical abilities within the form. Not too long ago, director Gary King shared a valuable piece of advice from Ted Hope, a producer and key supporter of independent filmmaking, on this fantastic space Mentorless, “I like to think of what film producer Ted Hope reminded me the first time I met him: ‘work begets work.’ In this case, films can beget films with a little dedication and perseverance.” If there is a particular message at the heart of this piece on The Gift, it is that I encourage all who have a desire to make a film, whether a short or feature, a documentary or narrative, to spark that flame and walk into that dark room towards their goal. You will learn what it takes to make a film, but most importantly, you will learn more about yourself and be able to define who you are in terms of the filmmaker you feel inside yourself.
This “film school” experience that is The Gift made me aware of how much the process excites me, even in face of the challenges and obstacles that await. Robert Bresson declared that the filmmaker makes “a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet.” I can not wait to discover more unknown planets.
That’s it my dear readers! If you enjoyed what you read and want to know more, here is the The Gift‘s synopsis:
“On leave after having brought down an international criminal syndicate, Peter Wright, an agent seeking redemption for the death of the mob leader’s innocent son, takes a security job. When the young girl he is paid to guard is kidnapped by the right hand of the crime boss, he is left with one choice.”
You can also visit the film’s official page to help Edwin and connect with him through his account @eanieves.