I spent a fair amount of time this past summer reflecting on my days as a film student. Which would be unremarkable if I had been spending my days reviewing movies or even absorbed in still photography. I was writing a one act play. And yet, there was an underlying rationale to the way my thoughts persistently drifted back more than thirty years to my undergraduate life, studying all things cinematic at Brooklyn College. Although the play I referenced was, aside from one pathetic exercise in a junior year playwriting class, my first real attempt at creating something for the stage, I have had some experience in screenwriting. Which is my way of saying that I’d had plenty of previous opportunity to come to the specific realizations that occurred to me for the first time just this past July. I suppose a little background might be in order here.
When I first began to study film production I found myself fascinated with the job of the director of photography. The dramatic difference between what things looked like on set and what the audience saw as a finished product amazed and challenged me as a student. I first began learning about cinematography in the spring of 1982, and so all of my education involved using actual 16mm film. Not to in any way diminish the talents of those shooting on digital formats, the technical demands of using film were myriad compared to that of today’s standards. At a purely creative level the goal is always the same: compose and light a shot in a way that allows the aesthetic quality of the image to serve the narrative. If, as is the case in digital acquisition, the viewing public will end up seeing whatever it is (more or less) that the crew sees, the task is still complex. Camera and lighting placement are still crucial. Any error will be painfully obvious to anyone watching the movie. A poorly framed picture, or one with shadows in all the wrong places is an artistic anathema regardless of whether or not the shot took twenty minutes to acquire or half a day. The man who taught me the fundamentals of motion picture photography (Bill Hornsby) did a terrific job.
Bill absolutely loved moviemaking, and could wax rhapsodically about the beauty of an image at the drop of a hat. He was also able to impart upon me a staggering amount of technical information without ever causing my math-phobic early twenties self to have a seizure, or lose my fascination with the artistry of the moving image. More than anything else, the attention to detail that he stressed demystified an artistic process without turning it into a dry, clinical task. It took decades, but that experience helped me to form what I now consider to be the cornerstone of my approach to any creative endeavor. I believe that moments of “magic” are the sole province of the audience. For those doing the work (writing, acting, singing, etc.) what there is, mostly, is a lot of sweat. Not that there aren’t moments of pure inspiration, but the moments, are just that, and no more. Over the past two years that I’ve been posting at this space I have learned that lesson in almost everything I’ve written. My frustration in finding the right transitional phrase, my somewhat neurotic attention to variety of vocabulary; I can’t help but think that Bill Hornsby was a part of that and I wish I still was in contact with him so that I could thank him directly. If I owe a general philosophical debt to Bill, then I have to acknowledge that a piece of advice regarding the visual aspect of cinema that has had the single largest practical impact on my creative life came not from him, but from another film professor.
Nadja Tesich taught writing and directing for film at Brooklyn College. She was a Yugoslavian ex-pat who had come to her position after having had some artistic success at a young age in a variety of ways. Most prominent (and relevant to her career as a film professor) was her having acted in Eric Rohmer’s Nadja In Paris, a documentary he directed featuring her during her time studying at The Sorbonne. I guess it didn’t do her any professional harm that her brother was Steve Tesich, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Breaking Away, amongst other movies. My first hand contact with Nadja was rather different than it had been with Professor Hornsby. If at the time that I had been sitting in one of Bill’s classes you had told me that at some distant point in my future his impact would remain current and profound, I would not have blinked. He was a wizard-like figure to many of his students, and the idea that his teaching would stay with me for years to come would have seemed only right. Ms. Tesich had a less well defined presence, although over time I did glean several valuable lessons from her regarding writing and working with actors. It was Nadja who impressed upon me the importance of never giving a line reading to anyone, and her lecture on scene breakdown as part of her directing class actually became fundamental to my understanding of basic narrative construction as a writer, regardless of the medium. Those insights were invaluable to me, but broadly so. It was an offhand comment of hers in reference to the movie Eleni, that gave me a really specific technique that I have used on past screenwriting projects, as well as the play that I referred to in the beginning of this post. We were talking about the film one day after class and she spoke of how much she enjoyed the way that the films director of photography, Billy Williams, had drawn inspiration from the paintings of El Greco.
The idea that someone would shoot a film with a painter in mind stayed with me. In the decades that followed I found myself thinking of it quite often as I sat in a darkened theater, taking in the physical beauty of what was on the screen, and wondering what painter had in some way been the inspiration for what I was watching. Some times the connection was obvious to an almost conspicuous level. More than one fellow enthusiast of the Steve Martin dramatic musical, Pennies From Heaven, has noticed the obvious influence of Edward Hopper. The comparison is complete, ranging from the moody palette of colors to the repetitive use of frames that are strikingly reminiscent of Hopper’s most well known piece, Nighthawks at the Diner. Pleasantville and The Natural both owe tremendous debts to the loving snapshots of Americana that were the sum and substance of Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre. At other times the connection that I felt existed was more subtle, less direct. As I sat through multiple viewings of Angel Heart I couldn’t help but think of the stark black and white photojournalism that constituted the depression and WWII era work of Arthur Fellig, more popularly known as Weegee. In that case it wasn’t anything in particular, so much as a pervasive tone of struggle and darkness. All of which is interesting (at least to me), but not seemingly apropos to anything I might be doing as a writer. Except, as I only recently became aware of, it is.
I have, over the years, developed the habit of creating characters, and their dialogue, with an actor or specific performance in mind. Nothing genuinely plagiaristic, just allowing the tone that a performer or performance generated to serve as a model of sorts for someone I was trying to bring to life. It’s not something I was unaware of, but until now I had never consciously seen it as a writer’s variation of the approach that Nadja had brought to my attention more than a half of a lifetime ago. Having finally seen what should have always been plain as day to me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this moment to offer thanks to a woman who is, sadly, no longer here to hear it. The play I wrote will be staged next spring by the From Scratch repertory company. As the time draws closer and I get an exact date I will be sure to share it. If you happen to venture out to see it and find it to your liking I hope you’ll remember to consider the role that two film professors played in bringing it to the theater.*
*My sincere thanks to my friend Danny Solo for his assistance in writing this piece. Danny, mentioned in numerous (Brooklyn Music Factory, Now That I think About It, Hate Crime Legislation) previous posts on this site, is an art teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. He vetted my hunches concerning the cinematographer/artist connections. Thanks pal, I’m sure I would have blown it without you.