the key and the frame

The Key and the Frame

Introduction

I’m aware it’s been a year since I last wrote.  But there was a good reason for this.  I spent a year or so – on top of everything else in my life – working on a project that I hope will bring these films closer to realization.  The Key and the Frame was a way of initiating me into the film-making process from start to finish and is a stand-alone companion film to “The Relationship Triptych.”

Development

I got the idea indirectly from Sean Durkin, who wrote and directed Martha Marcy May Marlene.  He had made a short film, Mary Last Seen, which served as both a companion film and a stand-alone film.  For the former, it shared the same subject matter and in this case, it was set in a fictional cult located in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  For the latter, it had nothing to do with the titular character of the feature or her experiences.  (It even covers an aspect that is not present in the feature, which is how one is brought into that world.)  I thought that I should do something similar in regards to “The Relationship Triptych.”

(Interestingly enough, I had similar ideas early on such as concept trailers and even “deleted scenes.”  The approach I took that led to The Key and the Frame seemed to make the most sense at the time.)

The initial challenge was to find a way to encapsulate three films in one and demonstrate the general style and approach each film will take.  As they all are character studies – where dialogue and character’s actions drive the story – it would make sense to have characters interact that can also “represent” something about each film.  So, Deborah represents On Nights Like This, Arthur represents All That We Are and Lydia represents Walk in Silence.  Their present circumstance reflects something of their parent film: Deborah talks about “dealing with emotions,” Arthur has to deal with academic nonsense and Lydia is preparing herself to be received into the Orthodox Church.  Timothy is more of a summation of all the films and doesn’t lean toward any particular trait: emotional, intellectual, spiritual.

Having them interact through hookah smoking came directly from my own experience.  Nearly every week, I would go to a hookah lounge – Sheesha Lounge in Boston (Allston) – with people who attended nearby Hellenic College/Holy Cross School of Greek Orthodox Theology.  It was our way of unwinding, decompressing, venting, socializing, laughing, idea exchanging and so on.  It was something you didn’t see too often in films (at least American ones) and it made this “coffeehouse discussion” a bit more interesting.  Plus having each character take with the hose is akin to whoever was holding the flashlight around a campfire telling stories.

Pre-Production

It didn’t take too long to lay out a first draft in mid-April.  When I was done with a second draft around late April-early May, I started making my cast calls, assembling a crew and figuring out little by little the logistics needed to make this work.  Travis Gray (the DP) and Margaret Hutchinski (Lydia) were the only people I knew prior to initiating this production.  Everyone else came through a series of connections, either through other people I knew or through avenues like NewEnglandFilm.com

[Note: The other thing I’ve been doing in between writing posts is building a network.  This came from attending as many events and gatherings in the greater Boston area (and throughout the New England region) involving filmmakers as I possibly could.  It does often back to the idea that it’s who you know that will take you to where you want to go.]

Casting was a process of trial and error involving email and phone correspondences.  Once the cast was set, I had one rehearsal with all of them – though one of them had to appear virtually – at a hotel room I booked for myself in Bedford.  (There was no way my apartment could be a suitable rehearsal space.  Plus I needed an excuse to “get away.”).

The major setback prior to shooting was my original idea for a location wouldn’t have worked for a host of good reasons.  But as I reaffirmed, problems often do have solutions.  It was just a matter of finding them in a good amount of time.  (Also, this is where having a network helps.)  But even with the various bumps, all was set for shooting.

Production

Everything was shot on August 5, 2012 in Hingham.  Travis shot it with his own Sony NEX-FS100 while Casey Preston – seasoned actor and up-and-coming videographer – recorded sound.  Steven Higgins, whose sublet we were using as our location, served as our production assistant.  The day itself was very muggy (and that summer was quite nasty for anyone who doesn’t like humidity with their heat).  So imagine: a muggy day outside, a basement sublet with zero circulation, eight people in a room, a few lights (even though they were LED lights) … it was very easy to sweat.  Also I had trouble getting the hookah to work (another last minute acquisition in relation to the location revision).  In order to save face, keep going, avoid starting fires and not to add more to the already muggy atmosphere, everyone smoked a dead hookah.  Even with those snags, everyone got along very well – considering how none of us had worked with each other at all prior – and we were able to get everything in the can.

[Note: This is my apology to any and all hookah aficionados.  Yes, the sparks you see when you blow the ash off from the coals can’t catch fire (unless you are near something flammable … in that case, you should definitely relocate =] ).  Yes, the hookah itself doesn’t generate that much heat (even with the red-hot coals).  And yes, I know it’s *very* obvious they are not smoking a live one as the exhale smoke is very prominent.  This is a case where 1) the idea of them doing it is more important than actually doing it and 2) I was erring on the side of caution as this would have been the first time I had to prepare everything myself.]

Post-Production

Post-production was all about pulling everything together.  A few weeks after shooting wrapped, I edited (as Frederick Morgenstern) while Travis worked on the final color grade/correction.  I used Adobe Premiere Pro, which ended up being more than I needed in the end.  Travis did the color grade using Final Cut Pro.  He also – bless him – managed to crop the image to a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is what I see for each of the films in “The Relationship Triptych.”  I also did the final sound mix in Adobe Audition, which was more about polishing and sweetening the production tracks.

[Note: The reason for the pseudonym is similar to how other filmmakers use it – think the Coen Brothers or Steven Soderbergh – and that’s because even “auteurs” don’t want to see their names on everything.  My rule is that anything else I do for on-set production will be under “William Jameson” and anything post-production will be under “Frederick Morgenstern.”  You heard it here first.]

Dan Kupka provided the original music for the first scene.  The idea was to create an impression of a music broadcast, whether it’s on the radio or via the Internet.  I would suggest various styles and he would work on it.  We would send SMS messages back and forth discussing what he had done.  One of those exchanges became the only discernible lyric you can hear: “If you can understand me, I can understand you.”

For the end credits, I used Boards of Canada’s “Open the Light.”  While this was because I felt it was a befitting piece of music, I also wanted to go through the process of getting a proper synchronization license as this will be something I would need to do for “The Relationship Triptych.”  I’m very grateful to all at Warp for their assistance in making that happen, both as a filmmaker and a long-time fan of their catalogue.

[Note: Those who know me will know that I have composed my own music.  Then the following question arises, “Why not make your own music?”  I have many reasons for this.  The biggest one is that when I make a film, I’m already investing a lot of energy into it.  Furthermore, I feel satisfied in expressing myself through film that I don’t need the additional layer of music coming from me.  Plus a lot of the time, I feel the music already exists that can best express what the scene is.  (And very often, a scene – or even whole films – will arise out of music that already exists.)  To me, anything original will feel like a second-rate imitation of something that already works.  That said, the original music here is original and does not depend on a specific reference.]

Presentation

After everything was completed in December, I submitted it to the Boston International Film Festival.  Admittedly, I was a bit naïve in doing this.  However, I felt I had accomplished something and I wanted the opportunity to show it.  I felt it was good enough to be submitted to a festival (and there should be more showings in the near-future as well).  Thankfully, I was selected to play along a hundred or so other films in the middle of April 2013.  It was held at AMC Boston Common 19, the same place where after I had seen an advance screening of Up in the Air I’d revisit On Nights Like This.  It’s also where I envision Christopher and Elena having one of their dates.  The accompanying feature was Black Marigolds, a first feature from Lance Malbon and starred Rachel Boston (also its executive producer) and Noah Bean.  Rachel Boston was also in (500) Days of Summer, a film that provided some vindication and revamp for On Nights Like This when I rediscovered it in late 2009.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, here below is the fruit of my labor:

(Please note that this edition is for general viewing outside of any film festival screenings and not my preferred rendering.  It has all to do with the end credit music.)

Final Thoughts

When the post-production was completed, I felt what I had achieved was a good start.  There were things I could have done differently as well as better.  And there were probably some things I needed to reevaluate.  But at the same time, it was very close to what I had in mind.  Furthermore, the fact that I could pull it off, it looks and sounds competent (at the very least) and it was my first effort, that’s sufficient reason to proud.  But the end is just a means to another end.  Hopefully, this will really start something grand.

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