Archive for August, 2009

FilmWaves Articles

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , on August 20, 2009 by things2see

This is an interview we did for Filmwaves, a British magazine about independent films, just after we’d finished shooting “Borges and I” and before we started editing.

by Marco Zee-Jotti

We met Yoni Bentovim and Emily Harris after the success of their new short film Three Towers at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and winning Best Short Film at Raindance Film Festival in London. They graduated from the London Film School and set up a small production company in London. With them we explore what they believe making a film is all about.

Marco Zee-Jotti – Would you like to introduce Indivision for us?

Yoni Bentovim – Indivision is me and Emily, we are both producers and directors. We met at the London Film School and soon discovered that we have the same way of looking at films and cinema, so we started our relationship working together, and later set up Indivision Films which is a sort of vehicle for production. It became our way of producing our own projects.

MZJ – I know you feel passionately about film, how would you define your projects?

YB – For us any project must be really distinctive. I think that a film is a place where we can ask many questions, a film has space for a lot of philosophy. We love making films that ask questions, examine things and check boundaries, rather than just entertain. When you make a film you really need to concentrate and you have to love it in order to keep on doing it, so the subject has to grab us for that amount of time and challenge us as we go along. This is our way of choosing projects. Also, we are really interested in reality and the way people react to reality. For example, our film Notes from Rishikesh, shot in India a few years ago, is sort of testing the boundaries between documentary and fiction.

Right now we have just finished shooting Borges and I, a feature which is pretty much about the same thing. It is about a guy who decides to make a film without anybody else knowing it, he becomes addicted to the sensation of making a film and he sort of separates himself from reality.

For us it is also important to think about the format. After Three Towers we found it very difficult to find funding, even if we won an awards with that short and others. We did not want to wait too long, because I think that the important thing is to keep making films and not be bitter. We think that there is always an excuse not to do but there is always a possibility to do. So we decided to make a microbudget film using a story that has a direct connection to the format. And this is the only format this film could have been shot on. In films we used 35mm and we exploited the details and the contrast that film can offer. We wouldn’t necessarily shoot a drama which was intended for 35mm on digital.

(still from Three Towers)

MZJ – How did this idea apply to Three Towers, for instance?

YB – In Three Towers the format was HDCAM and we chose this because most of the people in the film were non-actors. And you need to shoot again and again. You need the flexibility of digital video, but maintaining the good quality and detail because it is a very visual film. Format has a lot to do with content. Matching the format to the content. But it is also dictated by practicalities, in this rural village in Italy there was no electricity or running water, and 35mm demands electricity for lighting.

Borges and I is an example, we need a realistic way of shooting that makes it believable, and the film plays on this idea of being real and not real. The tension between real events and storytelling.

In Three Towers we explored it by working with non-actors and tried to make them not act but feel what is happening in time, which is different from our time in a sense that their way of life has a different pace. Three Towers is all about how the world from outside comes into the life of this couple and changes it. In the Western world we live with news all the time, but we do not notice how that news change our lives.

In Three Towers we tried to slow everything down and see the effect of this small piece of news (it’s about 9/11) that comes from the outside. Because we present their life as predictable as it can be any small diversion becomes noticeable. The bit of news has a meaning and it affects their relationship. So if you want one question the film poses it is: how do we process the world outside?

We made another film called Machine, where we also explored the reality of time. In Machine the main character invents a machine to go back in time but as his days are all the same so he cannot really tell if he is going back in time or not.

MZJ – What is it for you a ‘microbudget’?

YB – It’s basically a film that we are capable of making ourselves without any backing. However, we get a lot of sponsorship in kind. For example, for Three Towers we had a camera almost for free. People in London very approachable and friendly, the Shooting People network is really useful, there is a big community of people who are willing to help and participate. Also, you know, people often invest in cars or life comforts… for us making our own films is very very important, so we are not ashamed to say that sometimes we use some of our own money to make something. We don’t have a car or many life comforts though. I think that it is better to do something very low-budget than do nothing waiting for the funding.

MZJ – How do you go about writing a script?

YB – We have great ideas but we are not writers and we looked for a writer for a long time, putting ads in Shooting People and other places. Three Towers was written by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret and they just won the Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival for their first feature Jellyfish. They wrote the script for us after knowing our style from seeing our film Machine. But there are many good screenwriters out there, it’s not about who is the best writer but about taste, whether there is chemistry between the writers and us. Some are too busy trying to write very emotionally dramatic scenes, and Emily and I do not actually believe in make-believe, we’d rather like a script that makes us think. Often we favour slow films as they allow you the space for thinking. We do not favour intense drama, but that’s, as I said, just our taste.

MZJ – I understand what you mean, in a long shot there is time to dwell on details in the frame beyond the main character or action, details which we may not see and think about if the editing is too fast.

YB – Yes, I agree and then something happens and you are back in the film. We are so used to television where everything happens fast. Cinema is a great place to try and look at time differently, rather than keeping everybody constantly emotionally involved. Having said that, in our new project we use DV and in DV you can’t really experience time as you do in 35mm because it’s not as rich. In DV you tend to shoot a lot of close ups or medium shots, it’s a different attitude. In this film we put aside our love for slow Ozu-like shots.

MZJ – In your films you are keen to explore the meaning of ‘reality’.

EH – Yes, the conflict between what we understand is real or documentary and what is fictional, where do we draw that line? Everything is about reality but we are interested in playing with the borders between what is real and what is not real, and that might be in the context of a documentary or of a fiction film. A perfect example is Close Up where we see those borders being crossed. Or, more importantly, not being able to see where those borders were crossed.

Another important point is that cinema can be a modern forum for philosophy, people do not read philosophy books as much anymore, so what’s happening is that those ideas can be put into a film and on a screen and that’s what we are interested in doing, finding a way to ask those questions, and it is asking the questions that is really important, the answers are not that important

MZJ – You said that a film is a place for asking philosophical questions, which one precisely?

EH – In Machine we ask questions about time and our perception of time; Three Towers is about how we are influenced by media, how information travels and penetrates inner cities, rural areas, how the world has become so small. Seeing the Twin Towers falling is one thing but hearing about it in a rural environment where you have no exposure to radio or television is another thing.

A love story is great and emotional and human at one level, but the way we analyse information as human beings is what connects us. The other thing is that as a company, because we want to ask these questions, what we remind ourselves of is that it doesn’t matter if we fail because we are exploring something new, every time we come up with a new idea it’s scary because film is so expensive and there are so many people involved. It’s such an endeavour that it’s easy to say oh let’s wait until the script is perfect, or when we get a marketable idea, or when we get funding. When you are driven by asking questions and exploring ideas and taking things to a next step, it really doesn’t matter if you fail at the end, it doesn’t have to be perfect but interesting.

MZJ – What is failure?

EH – Yeah, and also what is success. Failure in terms of film would be having to put the film on a shelf where no one will be able to see it, or if no one ever gets to see the film because it never passed post-production. For us it’s really about people connecting to the film, whether it’s a small or big venue or festival.

MZJ – What is your experience of touring film festivals?

YB – Film festivals are great opportunities to meet people, producers, distributors, etc. In England there are a few bodies, like the British Council or Film London, that help filmmakers. They have lists of important festivals for short films. If you get in they help you distribute your film. Three Towers got some help. It’s difficult to transfer your film onto 35mm, and many festivals only accept 35mm copies, but the British Council can also help you with this. At a festival, it’s also great to see your film on a big screen, and the audience reaction. When we screened Three Towers at the Tribeca film festival in New York the audience response was fantastic.

MZJ – How easy is it to get into film festivals though?

EH – It’s difficult because for every short film festival there are about three thousand films sent in and they can only choose about 50-70 depending on the festival, it’s incredibly competitive and amazing films do not get seen, so it can be very disheartening for a filmmaker.

We had a situation with Machine where we were feeling the effects of rejection after rejection and at one point we decided to get a few filmmakers together and rent out the NFT for a free screening. We advertised in Time Out and just got people to see it. After that we started to do really well at festivals. So sometimes the film has to be given legs and it will run, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, if you really believe in your project you have to make a screening happening. The thing is that the film doesn’t come alive until someone else sees it, it’s that simple.



Posted in FAQ with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2009 by things2see

• How did this film come about?

After finishing our last short Three Towers, we felt it was time to do a longer film. We had a few feature scripts that would cost at least a few hundred thousand to make, and since our work is never really commercial, we realized that it would take us a very long time to raise that money.

Around that time we saw an American cinema verite film from the sixties called David Holzman’s Diary and we thought to ourselves that this kind of format – one person documenting and commenting on his life, could be an interesting and relatively cheap way to explore subjects that interest us.

Almost all of our previous short films were shot on 35mm film and are very visually oriented, but we knew that our next longer one would have to be a DV project if it were to be self-funded.

• How did you decide on the unique style you used?

We thought that if we’re going digital we should try something extreme and go all the way. We decided that instead of compromising and shooting a 35mm look-a-like film with a DV camera, we would aspire to make a digital film that justified its digital medium – to take advantage of the digital format and do things that are not possible to do in any other format.

Basically we didn’t want to just shoot something digitally, we wanted a ‘digital idea’. So we thought of a concept of making a film with
people who are not actually aware they are part of a film (by using a hidden camera), and in this way to play with concepts of blending fiction and reality.

This way of shooting (from a chest high camera)

would dictate a sort of

aesthetic that is not usually seen in fiction films.

Also we were eager to try and film in a way that would free up actors from their awareness of a camera on set, this was very liberating for them.

We had a rule of not letting the actors see the rest of the script other than their dialogue and not letting them watch the takes after shooting because we didn’t want them to see and be aware of what the frame is or what exactly we see in each shot.

They totally understood what we were trying to achieve by doing this and thoroughly enjoyed the process despite the obvious frustrations for them.

Many parts of the film are in fact pure documentary – many of the people Tim (the main character wearing the camera) approached and talked to didn’t know they were being filmed and only after the scene was shot we had to chase them for release forms.

Our main character flew in from LA to play the part and had never met most of the cast and crew before so genuinely did not know very often who was an actor or who was rehearsed cast. For example when he meets the main female character for the first time after asking several random members of the public questions, Tim had no idea that she was not just another genuine member of the public until the dialogue being exchanged between them started to sound familiar. This was of course true to the story of the script. When watching the film it is not always easy to guess who is an actor and who is “real” and no we’re not going tell!

• Was there a written script or was it improvised?

We wrote a treatment based on our ideas and contacted our friend and writer Chris McColl who started to write the script while we went about casting and location scouting and other areas of pre-production.

There was a written script but certain parts were documentary and totally improvised.

• It feels like it was very much shot on the fly was it?

With the exception of the documentary bits the opposite is correct, it was often very difficult to get shots right from a framing and movement point of view and we often did up to 50 takes until we got it right.

The sound recording side of this was more elaborate than any film we have ever done, as often nothing could be visible from the outside we sometimes had four separate sound recording devices synch recording all at once.

The restrictions of filming like this often meant less freedom and more difficulties. And because we wanted to keep uncut long takes in the finished film, the rehearsal process with the actors was vigorous.

• What were people’s reactions when you told them you were filming them secretly?

They were fairly laconic – Londoners have seen it all, and with the exception of one or two almost all of them amazingly approved of us using the material.
• Did you really use a button-hole camera or did you fake it?

We really used button-hole camera. When we started pre-production we found this perfect company who designed their own spy cameras, they are experts in espionage. We tried as low budget film makers often do to ask for a discount in return for a credit or other publicity through the film but they got scared and told us that they can never publicize themselves since that could put them and their client-base in jeopardy – they have to keep it underground.

We spent many hours testing different cameras and ways of recording undercover while on their premises and some of their clients’ enquiries that we overheard during that time were truly unbelievable and eye-opening.
• What were the challenges of filming ‘guerrilla style’ on the streets of London?

It was a strange but positive experience filming this way in the streets of London and we did get away with a lot. It is well known that London is a very unfriendly city for film makers – anyone who puts a tripod on the street is usually stopped within minutes by police, and official permits to shoot publicly cost a lot of money… but we didn’t have a visible camera and nobody knew we were filming – we didn’t have second AD’s running around directing the background people – our backgrounds are real!

At times in order not to arouse suspicion and interest of passers by, the small film crew (including us the directors) were waiting somewhere away from the scene, checking the action only by looking at the material at the end of takes and then re-directing accordingly. For this reason the rehearsal process was crucial. (just for the record there are no location copyrights issues in having footage of the city streets, but for the filming itself there is a need for a permits)

• Why is the lead actor American?

Our story is about a character who is very bold and a very ‘in your face’ type. We couldn’t imagine an English person approaching strangers in the street and asking them what they think of him, it would have seemed very unnatural, but as an American outsider (who has a lot of chutzpah) it works.

The people who Tim approached in the street “forgave” his intrusiveness and opened up to him easily because he was someone from somewhere else. Without generalizing too much, it seems Americans find it easier to talk about themselves and reveal personal things than the English do, without too much hesitation, and this quality is an integral part of this film. It simply couldn’t be an English character.

• You’d recently had a baby when you started the film wasn’t that a problem?

Bruno was basically in a sling on his mum during filming hours and he really seemed to enjoy being on set. We had him with us during auditions and in fact it was a good test for the actors to see how they responded to an unpredictable environment as they would probably encounter this during filming.

The hardest part was actually the normal routine at home rather than the filming, as babies tend to be fairly easy during the day but don’t really get the concept of sleeping at night.

• You’ve got some great music on the soundtrack, tell us a bit the choices you made there.

Our music and sound supervisor Ro Heap used to work at Abbey Road Studios and through his connections and charms we found a wealth of incredibly talented musicians and bands (some signed and some not) who were happy to contribute their music to the film on the basis of possible future distribution profit. We are very proud of the music in this film that includes a variety of sounds from new kleizmer to grunge and contemporary modern.

• If you had more money to make this how would you have made it differently?

This film was made the only way it could have been made – with a small almost undercover crew and talented devoted actors. This is why we chose to do this project.

(colour photo by Graeme Weston)

things to see when you’re ‘blinking’

Posted in Uncategorized on August 15, 2009 by things2see

Hi – Chris McColl here. I’m the guy Emily and Yoni asked to write the script for their film. I’ve just finished reading a book called Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, which inadvertently offers an intriguing interpretation of Borges and I.

Gladwell explores what he calls “thin-slicing,” which is the human ability to see, in the blink of an eye, all the relevant information one needs to size up a situation or to judge the quality of an object. The author recognizes that this flies in the face of conventional thought, which tells us that the more information we have, the better any analysis will be. In his very compelling book, Gladwell offers up example after example of real-life scenarios where a surfeit of information at best paralyzes us, and at worst pushes us toward very bad decisions.

The chapter that most speaks to Borges and I, in my opinion, deals with University of Washington psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman. Gottman spends his days videotaping married couples as they discuss, well, “challenging” aspects of their relationships. The conversations tend to last fifteen minutes or so, after which Gottman and his staff review the tapes looking for specific expressions, body language, verbal tones and other cues which reveal the truth about the couples’ marriages. He and his team have developed a coding system for these cues, and with them, they predict the success or failure of the marriages.

After watching 15 minutes of video, Gottman’s team can predict the future of a marriage with 90% accuracy. After watching 3 minutes of video, their accuracy only slips to about 75%. But Gottman himself has more impressive statistics. Indeed, he finds that merely sitting next to a couple in a restaurant and listening to their conversation for 30 seconds or so gives him a very clear picture of that couple’s fate!

All this would suggest that Tim’s video exercise in the film is a good idea: he studies people to learn their ticks, quirks and reactions to things Tim does. Armed with this knowledge, he heads into his audition.

Where Tim falls down, I think, is covered in Chapter 4 of Gladwell’s book. Here, Gladwell tells the fascinating story of an extensive (and expensive) 2002 war simulation game played by the Pentagon. In it, highly decorated Marine officer Paul Van Riper was asked to play the part of a rogue military commander, based in the Middle East with a wealth of terrorist cells at his disposal (this seems understandable until one considers that the game was planned from 1999 – well before the 9/11 attacks and the deposing of Saddam Hussein). The Pentagon forces, or Blue Team, had at their disposal hundreds of military analysts and specialists and all the latest evaluative software. By contrast, the rogue commander led Red Team, which had dozens of Van Riper’s former colleagues and decades of actual battleground experience under their collective belt.

In the first round of the war game, Red Team summarily routed Blue Team’s forces. Why? Because Van Riper realized that any face-to-face encounter that one expects to win requires thin-slicing – that split-second mental summary of the guy on the other side that allows decision-making as informed as it is instinctive and immediate. Blue Team had fallen victim to their own information machinery – once hooked up to the IV data-drip, they were addicted and couldn’t make a decision without pumping themselves full of it.

Clearly Tim didn’t read this book.

Hope You Enjoy the Flick

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by things2see

Okay, so here’s a question: how useful is Tim’s “experiment”?

Tim sets out to survey the ways in which people react to him. Such reactions, any psychiatrist will tell you, are profoundly subtle things. Twitches in facial muscles in a fraction of a second will register with one who observes them and trigger similar nearly undetectable details in body language.

Many researchers draw on this when looking into the phenomenon known as “road rage.” If I drive my car and someone approaches me in another car and cuts me off as I move forward, my instinct is toward an aggressive response. On the other hand, if I’m walking down the sidewalk and someone approaches me and jumps in front of me in order to enter a shop before I’m in her way, I’m far less likely to swear at her.

The reason? Scientists put it down to something called the “eyebrow flick.” This is probably known to most people from encounters in the workplace: the first time we see a co-worker on a given day, we’ll say, “Hello,” or “Good morning,” or some such. Possibly even the second time, we’re likely to say something. The third time, we may raise our head or nod our recognition of that person. But it just doesn’t make sense to keep saying hello every time, especially if we’re likely to encounter them a dozen times a day. So, whether we’re aware of it or not, when we see that co-worker, we begin flicking our eyebrows at him or her.

Anthropologists believe this to be an instinctive, inherited behavior, dating back hundreds of thousands of years to a time when humans were brutish and tribal. As the hunter-gatherers went off into the wild in different directions, they needed a way to know whether that caveman in the distance was a friend or a competitor, and a way to identify themselves to said caveman. The thing is, if he wasn’t a friend, the last thing Og wanted to do was drop his weapon or move his hands into a less defensible position in order to indicate peaceful intent; he certainly didn’t want to have to speak and potentially scare off his next meal.

Thus the eyebrows evolved into instruments of communication. If the caveman stranger flicked his eyebrows, it meant he was a friend. As need dictated over time, human eyesight improved and human eyebrow muscles developed such that we became adept at identifying the gesture from fair distances – a hundred yards or better. Now, the gesture transcends cultures, languages and geography (though there is some debate as to whether its application in Japan has been consistent with its use elsewhere).

And so now, if someone on the pavement wants to jump in front of me as I approach, she’ll likely attempt to make eye contact, and when she does, she’ll throw off a quick flick to let me know that she’s just in a bit of a rush – it’s nothing personal. Not trying to be rude, you understand. And so I do.

The eyebrow flick is one of literally thousands of markers humans use to gauge their responses to one another. We clench our jaws, we tilt our heads, we twitch our ears, we lower our eyelids a bit. Here’s the problem: when Tim reviews tapes of his encounters, he’s not reliving the same moments from the same point of view. His camera has a perspective a good foot below his natural one; with something as subjectively interpretive as human response and body language, even a shift in point of view this small can lead to a vast disparity in understanding.

Can Tim know, for example, whether or not the person to whom he’s speaking was ACTUALLY looking him in the eye at the time? At one point, Angus looks the camera in the eye when trying to locate it on Tim’s person. How is Tim to interpret this later? In the moment, he would have had to sense that Angus was uninterested in Tim’s feelings and facial expressions, because Angus was so keyed into the camera. But in watching the tape, Tim would have been “face to face” with Angus’ enthusiasm and excitement.

Most significantly, Tim would constantly see his conversations from a lower point-of-view – always putting himself in the subordinate position to his opposite. This may well explain his heightened insecurity and hostility toward those he observes, as unconsciously he perceives them as feeling superior to him, even though it is his own camerawork that gives them their “elevated” status.

What to make of this? Perhaps this very small shift contributes to Tim’s ultimate fate. Were he merely to employ his distorted sensibility only once, the results would likely be temporary. The more he relies on this other set of eyes, however, the harder it may be for him to trust his true observations. Like laying adhesive film over a window, each successive treatment leaves behind a residue that further distorts the original view.

Which may explain why Tim has such a hard time seeing what’s coming.