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Archive for December, 2017

Postcard #156 (The Blackhawk Hotel 2.0)

I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass
A Long December/ Counting Crows

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When I was 12 years old I remember thinking it odd that I had yet to know someone who died. But that would all soon change. Then back in ’95 I had four family members die over the course of the year. That was a tough year.

I’ve known four people who’ve died just in the past month alone including someone today.

It’s hard for death not to make you melancholy.

Just before Christmas I learned that Dan Tindall had died. He was an architect in Iowa who in 2002 bought The Blackhawk Hawk in Cedar Falls with ambitious plans to renovate it. It really was a key piece in turning around the Cedar Falls Main Street into a quintessential Midwestern Main Street—with a modern twist.

For the last six years I lived in Cedar Falls my office was just a block away from The Blackhawk Hotel and Dan hired me from time to time do do some photography and video work to promote the hotel. (Including the above photo and video frame from a screen grab back in 2010.)

Dan was a conversationalist and fun to talk to as he’d always have a story about a trip to Turks and Caicos, the historic difference between a hotel and a motel, or an observation about human nature. I’ll always be grateful to Dan for comping me a room for talent I used on a short film, but more so for the way he supported the arts in the Cedar Valley and helped transform Main Street.

Earlier this month a portion of downtown Cedar Falls was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Dan and his wife Kathy didn’t need to spend their time and money renovating The Blackhawk Hotel, but I’m sure glad they did. Generations to come will enjoy the fruit they planted 15 years ago.

Related post:
Postcard #59 (The Blackhawk Hotel)

Scott W. Smith

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For the last few days I’ve been working on condensing a massive amount of digital files. And when you do something like that you stumble across a few gems. Here’s a photo I took while photographing Gary Kelley’s artwork for a multimedia project we were working on a few years ago.

Gives you a little glance into Gary’s process. If I recall correctly, he had The Silent Clowns by the late film critic Walter Kerr on hand for the title cards he was designing that captured a WWI silent film era.

Here’s a 2013 promo by the Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony for that production.

Related posts:
Mr. Silent Movies
Silent Screenwriter Dies
Harold Loyd v. Buster Keaton
Writing the Artist
You Tube Film School (Early Film History)
Artist Gary Kelley Paints the Cloud in Iowa

Scott W. Smith

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“I recommend you dispose of anything that does not fall into one of three categories: currently in use, needed for a limited period of time, or must be kept indefinitely.” 
Marie Kondō,
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingHard Drive_3428.jpg

This week I’m doing a little winter cleaning. Starting the process of condensing 30+ hard drives of videos and photos over the years down to one 4T hard drive. A greatest hits if you will. And the best of the best will also be stored on 1T in the cloud.

Something I’ve put off for years because it’s an overwhelming task with no billable hours. But I have a plan and Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” theory (that she learned from her father) that’s keeping me sane.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life  

So I’m taking this hard drive by hard drive. I just finished going through my first drive so it feels good to get out of the gate.

I think the “bird by bird” concept is simple and profound. Whether it’s cleaning your house, writing a script, or editing a project.  The following quote has helped me get get rid of many books, movies, items, and clothes this year:

“Imagine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?” 
Marie Kondō

If you need a jolt to kick start some organization in your life check out the podcast interview Tim Ferriss did with tidying master Marie Kondo. 

Scott W. Smith

 

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Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Silent Night
Lyrics by Joseph Mohr
(Written in Salzburg, Austria and performed around the world for 200 years)

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R.C. Sproul’s notes used for a videotaping

R.C. Sproul was the Elvis of theologians.

He corresponded via letters with novelist Pat Conroy and scientist Carl Sagan. He once led a Bible study with some of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Bradshaw-era, did a pretty decent impersonation of Peter Falk as Columbo, could recite Edger Allen Poe and Shakespeare from memory, and played jazz on the piano. He’s quoted in the vampire movie The Addiction, and once played golf with Alice Cooper. Just your average theologian.

Wait. Backup. Why are we talking about a theologian on a screenwriting/filmmaking blog?

R.C. Sproul died earlier this month and it’s brought a flood of memories to my mind because tucked between my being a 16mm cameraman at American’s Downhill in Aspen in 1987, and winning my first Emmy in 2008, I spent the decade of the ’90s producing videos with him. (You can read his official obituaries at The Washington Post or  USA TODAY.)

I saw R.C. speak at a conference before 7,000 people, and at a smaller predominately African-American church in Charleston, and occasionally recorded his talks one on one in his home. R.C.’s mind was a deep well of knowledge and it was no effort for him to switch gears between the teaching of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus with Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thelonious Monk. R.C. believed all truth was God’s truth.

I met R.C. when I was 27 years old and just a few years removed from being an earring wearing, motorcycle riding, film school student in Los Angeles. I had Tony Lama eel skin boots, skinny Italian leather ties, and a jacket or two that would blend in on the set of Miami Vice. 

Imagine that guy walking into a Brooks Brothers blue blazer culture complete with Wingback chairs, and Hunt Club prints on the walls. I may have been a fish out of water, but it turned out to be a great opportunity on many levels.

This post is not so much a tribute to R.C. as it is about the twists and turns in the road that happen in your life. And in a round about way it’s my Christmas post this year. It’s way too long for most of you, but something I had to process. Merry Christmas.

FOLLOW YOUR OPPORTUNITIES

TV host Mike Rowe says that people shouldn’t follow their dreams, but their opportunities.  When writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) graduated from NYU film school he had a dream to make feature films, but he also had a need to earn a living. So what he did was follow his opportunity:

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

For me, working for a non-profit educational group that started out as The Ligonier Valley Study Center helped me turn the corner from film to video production, and eventually led me into the digital world. There I was able to produce, direct, shoot, and edit video projects.  As an audio producer/editor I helped launch and name the international radio program Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul in 1994. I did some photography, and helped build and design sets.

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Set for Ligonier youth video

But working for R.C. also did more than getting me hands on experience with non-linear editing with the AVID way back in mid-’90s, but it allowed me to work and learn from some of the most creative and talented people in Orlando. The list is too long to name everyone, but it includes cameraman Mike Murray of Adrenaline Films (who went on to become a director of photography on Survivor), cameraman Mike “Mac” McAleenan (now with Nat Geo credits), Bryan Smoker (now an editor at Disney World), audio engineer John Blanche (who worked on Eagles records at Criteria Records in Miami), editor Oliver Peters, film producer Rick Eldridge, and engineer Bob Zelin known for his posts at Creative Cow. 

I learned about graphics from Terry Groner, and motion graphics from Terry Briegel. And I doubt I’d won a second Emmy for location lighting if I hadn’t picked up a few tricks from DP Ben Mesker.  And I learned from Jack Rowley who first started videotaping R.C. back in the ’70s.

Just last week I saw a 1988 promotional video for “Hollywood East” and it made me smile. I left LA in December of 1987 in hopes of getting on the ground floor of the Central Florida production world as Disney and Universal were both building studios.

I guess in some ways I did, but it wasn’t the Florida version of Hollywood I was seeking.  The closest I got to that was editing a Ligonier project at Century III at Universal Studios while director David Nutter was editing Superboy in the next edit bay.

Nutter would eventually go on to win a Primetime Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones, and Hollywood East eventually became a reality—in Atlanta.  But my point is Orlando in the ’90s was happening in terms of production.

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I put on a tie and a blue blazer and they let me direct

Directing multicamera shoots for Ligonier at the CBS and FOX TV studios, and just working on productions day in and day out was a great place to learn and grow.  And it positioned me well for the multimedia work I’ve been doing since 2002. And though I only saw R.C. in passing over the last 15 years, his teaching/storytelling/communication style is one that I embrace and use (without the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) when I speak to students about production.

While at the time I would have rather been an assistant cameraman on the feature films that were shot in Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s —Ernest Saves Christmas (88), Parenthood (89), Passenger 57 (92)— I think I was better served long term working with R.C. producing/directing/shooting/editing an eclectic range of projects. It was also during that time when I did some of the Holocaust interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, which is easily in my top ten all-time production experiences.

Here’s the opening I produced and edited with Bryan Smoker that I think holds up pretty well even though it was done in standard def 20 years ago .

THE LIGONIER VALLEY— SILICON VALLEY CONNECTION

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. ”
Steve Jobs
2005 Stanford graduation speech

“The older the question, the older the answer.”
Naval Ravikant (Co-founder of Angel-list)

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Grounds of the original Ligonier Valley Study Center

There was a hunger in the ’60s for some deeper meaning to life. One clear—yet short lived— example was when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi in ’68. It was a time of experimentation which included psychedelic drugs and asking spiritual questions. Tech guru Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine even talks about Silicon Valley’s roots being grounded in hippy culture where there was freedom to create and innovate. The hippies may not have cared about material possessions, but they still needed to eat. So there was an entrepreneurial/bohemian/gypsy spirit where people made bracelets and such to sell at concerts and fairs.

Of course, a strange byproduct is this group of people who didn’t people care about material items laid the ground work that’s changed the world with computers and created some of the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. (Lawrence Kasden’s The Big Chill touched on the theme of how a group of friends went from not caring about material items to become full-bore materialists.)

Established places like Koinonia Farm (founded in 1942 ) in rural Georgia. were positioned well for Jesus movement when it formed in the ’60s. In 1969 Koinonia built their first house for the less fortunate, and the international group Habitat for Humanity (and President Jimmy Cater’s life work after leaving the White House) flowed from those efforts.

The early roots of Ligonier were also earthy, communal, and early church-like. Heck, I think even a few hippies were there. (Judging some of R.C. ‘s early photos I’d put him down as a beatnik.) Several documentaries and TV programs about the ’60s cover the aspect of how baby boomers were heading into the hills around the world in search of some form of spiritual enlightenment. One of those places was in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania—a rural area in the Ligonier Valley about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

That’s where The Ligonier Valley Study Center was founded in 1971 and modeled a little after what theologian Francis Schaeffer started in Switzerland called L’Abri. (R.C. met with Schaffer before starting Ligonier.) A place where small groups of people came to stayed for days or weeks and learned more about the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how to live the Christian life.

One redemptive example from Ligonier’s early years was Chuck Colson who came to the study center after his release from prison for his role in Watergate. He was mentored one on one with R.C. before launching Prison Fellowship They work to reform inmates while in prison and prepare them to make the transition once released. Another example is Joni Eareckson Tada who listened to R.C.’s tapes after a diving incident left her paralyzed as a teenager. Despite once thinking she wasted her life she started Joni & Friends in 1979.  Her minsitry helps handicapped people around the world, including refurbishing 10,000 wheelchairs a year.

R.C. not only connected a lot of dots for me, he showed me a lot of dots I didn’t even know existed. Some of those dots I still don’t understand. And while I embrace a lot of mystery of faith, one key principle that R.C. taught that I clearly understood was that men and women are reveled in the Bible warts and all. And the beauty is—God still used them.

While technically theology proper is the study of God. R.C.’s talks covered not only the Bible and theology, but philosophy, the arts, sex, economics, ethics, Greek mythology—in fact, I’m not sure what realm he didn’t cover.

Of course, any theologian popping up on a screenwriting blog may seem unusual, but it’s not unheard of. If you can’t talk about the spiritual realm at Christmas time, when can you talk about it? One of the most respected screenwriter bloggers/teachers, Scott Myers of Go Into the Story, has an Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. And perhaps my first grownup theological lesson ever came from Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader  in an interview published in  The Craft of the Screenwriter.  (I first read that book in the early 80s when I was still in film school.)

In an interview with John Brady, Schrader lays out the doctrine of total depravity and how he used that in the screenplay for Hardcore (1979). A story about a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan searching for his daughter who’s become a prostitute in California. (Sort of a modern-day reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers.)

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Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film looks at the films of Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer goes deeper on the topic. That book was published in 1988, when R.C. had relocated to Orlando. But it’s the kind of book that he would have discussed back in the early days when he talked about the foreign films.

There’s an episode of  Northern Exposure  titled A Wing and a Prayer where they arm wrestled over the doctrine of transubstantiation. I’ve always wondered where that episode came from. And you can’t talk about spirituality and films without talking about one of America’s greatest film directors who once wanted to be a priest:

“I’m not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Mission, Silence)

From the many interviews I read and heard over the years, I wouldn’t say that Scorsese has a lot of company in Hollywood that share his views.  But if you look outside the Hollywood system you’ll find filmmakers over the years with more of a spiritual emphasis; Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue)—who Roger Ebert called among the greatest filmmakers, Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski , and Andrei Tarkovsky.

If you’re unfamiliar with films with a spiritual bent check out these; Tender Mercies, Babett’s Feast, Koyaanisqatsi, Ida,  Departures, Grand Canyon, On the Waterfront, and Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

R.C.’s memorial service was this past Wednesday and the song they started the service with was the song Non Nobis Domine that ends the movie Henry V.  A song translated from the book of Psalms meaning, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give the glory.” 

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

“Man is a useless passion. It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Jesus of Nazareth

Apparently we took the long road to Bethlehem on this post. But it’s Christmas Eve and churches will be filled with people singing songs about a baby in a manger; O Holy Night, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angles Sing, Handel’s Messiah. 

Outside the churches people will sing Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Santa Baby, and White Christmas. Christmas time in the United States is the meeting of the sacred and the secular.

The orginal Christmas in Bethlehem was a collision of the sacred and the secular on a cosmic level.  It turned the world upside down.

So much so that even the king of rock ‘n roll once became a theologian when he sang;

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born

 

Scott W. Smith

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“What does love look like? …It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
Saint Augustine, Confessions

Late Saturday afternoon I drove into St. Augustine, Florida passing over the Bridge of Lions and because the light was fading quickly I had to double park to take this photo with my iPhone. St. Augustine at sunset is a visual feast I never get tired of seeing.

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Scott W. Smith

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And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within

One Particular Harbour written by Jimmy Buffett & Bobby Holcomb

(Warning: Long post today. Only wrote it because I think it needed to be said. You might disagree, but that’s the purpose of discourse. If you want something short, here’s a link to the screenplay and the press kit for The Florida Project ).

Over the weekend I learned that there’s a Margaritaville Resort Orlando being built and it seemed like the perfect place to round out my run of posts centered around The Florida Project.

The Jimmy Buffett/Key West-inspired resort is being built in Kissimmee on U.S. Route 192 in the shadow of Disney World—and is just 10 miles away from The Magic Castle Inn and Suites where they filmed most of The Florida Project.

Since this is my last planned post on The Florida Project I must address the mouse in the room. Yes, there is much I admired about the acting, the writing, and the overall production of the movie including the cinematography of Alexis Zabe . 

I love that it shined a spotlight on the issue of the hidden homeless. And I’m glad it will now be an ongoing part of that conversation. The movie has a 100% top critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I think it will be remembered at Oscar-nomination time.

But the conversation that I haven’t read about is the responsibility of the mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) If she has a mental illness then we can end the discussion and know that her circumstances need to be addressed on a professional medical level.  But if she’s not mentally ill then it’s fair game to speculate how she got there and why she appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

This indie film is a character study, so let’s study Halley a little bit more. I like that screenwriters Sean Baker and Chris Bergosh didn’t give us a back story or dump a lot of exposition on us about Halley.

But how did she and her daughter come to live in a low-budget, extended stay hotel in Florida? (If she simply ran away from her problems at home with hopes of a new life in the palm trees then that path is well-worn and comes with the disclaimer: “Results may vary.”)

Perhaps The Florida Project isn’t about the problem that there’s not enough affordable housing in parts of the country (as some have said), but a cautionary tale on how not to live your life.

At every turn Halley shoots herself in the foot.

A while ago I saw a video on the internet (if I find it I’ll post it here) and the person was telling students that they only needed to do three things to have a shot at a good life in America. (In the U.S. there is the extra advantage over other parts of the world in that that clean drinkable water is a given.)

  1. Finish school. (At least high school, ideally college.)
  2. Don’t have a kid until you are out of school and can support yourself and your kid.
  3. Get a job. Keep it. And do it well.

What happens if you don’t accomplish any of those? Halley is Exhibit A. 

Too harsh? Maybe. Or maybe just the harsh reality of what happens to those who give the finger to any kind of structure in their lives. The Halley’s of the world are not going to make that 10 mile journey from The Magic Castle to Margaritaville Resort Orlando (or even a basic 1-bedroom apartment) without a lot of grace. And hard work.

One summer when I was in college I worked in a factory where if you punched in late to work you were given a warning, if you punched in late a second time you were sent home for the day, if you punched in late a third time, you were fired. Halley’s F.U. attitude has no chance of being hired at a place like that, or keeping a job like that if she got it.

There were factory workers there who had been through various hardships and challenges. Many were part of the working poor. Some lived at home and drank what they earned. One guy told me that if he didn’t take quaaludes he wouldn’t make it through the day.

You didn’t have to be Theodore Dreiser to know you were watching An American Tragedy unfoldOr part American tragedy and part of the American dream.  Some were taking a night class or two at a community college and chipping away at a degree and hoping for a better life. Heck, I bet the majority of them did okay. (Probably one or two are planning to move to Margaritaville Orlando as soon as it opens.)

If Halley is hoping for a better life, she’s sure not doing much to that end. (And I’m not sure another stripper job is the answer.) This is not the edgy character April in Pieces of April who has issues but is trying to make amends to her dying mother by cooking a turkey for her family  on Thanksgiving. No, this is a young woman hustling her way through life—and that includes her doing prostitution work in a hotel while her daughter hides in bathroom.

Halley appears to have no support system; no parents or grandparents to take her in, no boyfriend to share the load. The closest person that can bring her a hint of redemption is the manager Bobby (Willem Defoe) and he’s close to kicking her out of the hotel for bad behavior.

In literary terms Halley’s joined the end of the rope club. In real life the Halley’s of the world often end up dead sooner than later.

But they don’t have to. If you’re a Halley, find an extended family member, a social service group, or a faith-based group to help you get back on your feet. I don’t think anyway wants to see their daughter or sister go through what Halley (and by extension her daughter Moonee) go through in the movie. May you find shelter from the storm in that one particular harbour. (If you’re like Halley and in Central Florida contact the Coalition for the Homeless in Central Florida/407.426.1250. Their website says they’ve helped nearly 1,000 guests move from one of their programs to permanent housing just in the past year.)

It’s one thing for a movie to open our eyes, another thing to stir our hearts, but it’s all just poverty porn if all we do is talk about fine acting and beautiful cinematography.

P.S. Brooklynn Prince (who plays Halley’s daughter Moonee in The Florida Project) was named today as BEST YOUTH PERFORMANCE by the Seattle Film Critics Society.

Update: After I wrote this post I ended up reading dozens of reviews on The Florida Project before I came across this a Film Comment review by Cassie da Costa that gave a little push back: “We never get any particular sense of who Moonee and Halley are as individuals beyond their predicament and pluck, and why they are at the center of the movie, instead of, for instance, Scooty and Ashley, or Jancey and Stacy, or Bobby and the young delivery man named Jack who seems to be his son. It seems that all of these characters are on screen because they’re interesting—they have unpredictable, confrontational personalities, and live in a rarely depicted, insular community where their eccentricities interweave and conflict—but not because Baker has genuine emotional insight on them or their circumstances.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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We tried to keep our crew small enough [on The Florida Project] where we weren’t a big presence that would suddenly bring artifice to the scene that we were shooting…they were ready to go and improvise behind the camera, and sometimes throw the schedule away. As long as I was proving to production and my financiers we were going to make it. [Meaning avoiding overtime or adding additional shooting days, and getting the film shot within the budget.]

…One of the scenes that kind of goes with this sometimes documentary style way of filmmaking is the scene with the cranes that a lot of people actually think might be one of the best scenes in the film. I wanted to shoot Willem interacting with the cranes and we were going to workshop a scene right there one morning. It was one of his last days I believe, and I wanted to make sure we had enough of the Bobby character before he left to go on to another show.

So these three cranes lived on the property. They would come up every morning and tap on the window of the lobby and the real clerks of The Magic Castle would come out and feed them Cheetos—they were addicted to junk food. The morning of my Steadicam artist is setting up rig and suddenly we all get emails and we look at it’s like ‘Do not shoot the cranes. They are an endangered species, if anything goes wrong this is a federal crime and this will shut us down our whole production.’ And I look over and the production offices are on the other side of the The Magic Castle—I knew it was going to take a while to get to me, so I said ‘Guys roll camera, Willem go inside the lobby, come out and do something, I don’t know what to tell ya.’

So he comes out and he has that wonderful interaction with the cranes, and he comes up with that line ‘No harm, no fowl.’ And my great Steadicam artists Mike McGowan, who worked on Moonlight, did that really nice move into him and suddenly it was like ‘Cut—alright, sorry.’ They made us move on, and that was the one take we got.”
Writer/Director Sean Baker
DGA podcast #98 The Director’s Cut

 

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