1. The Words
What does it mean to be a writer? When does one get to call himself a “writer.” Could it be that a writer is someone who is paid to write? Or perhaps a writer is someone who simply puts pen to paper? Maybe its simply a state of mind, or even just a label we use to make it easy for others to understand what it is we do. For me, a writer, at least in one sense, is all of the above and yet in another it is none of them. For writing is communication. Of course, it’s not the only kind of communication but, at its heart, is the flow of an idea from one human to another. This for me, is key to being a writer. Indeed, this for me, is key to being human.
Think about it, what does a nurse, mother, teacher, or even taxi driver have in common? A natural desire to communicate. Of course their manner of communication is vastly different. Yet it is true to say that if we are not communicating we are not living to our fullest potential. So the question then becomes, what does it take to communicate well? For me, the answer is empathy. For if I can place myself in the shoes of another, if I can think like someone else, if I can feel what they feel, then I can communicate. But of course this opens oneself up to failure. Because we all think, feel, and act differently. Yet without doing so one cannot grow. One cannot learn the skills needed to communicate if one is not willing to feel the pain of another. So in a sense, to be a writer, is to embrace failure!
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If you can please watch the film (with headphones) before reading my comments below.
2. Some Thoughts
One of the great things about filmmaking as a medium is that it affords the viewer the space to think for himself or herself. Writing, on the other hand, can often tell a reader what to think—it is this way and here are my arguments for saying so. Case in point, the previous sentence! Be that as it may, with film there is more space around the intended meaning allowing those engaging the piece at a deeper level to create their own. I love this about narrative filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting an audience can simply subvert meaning. No. For what would be the point of having a point if the only person who had access to that point was the person who made it? Silly! Right?
Moreover, the notion that there is no truth outside of what we give it is a post-modern trend related to the philosophical view of subjectivism—the view that everything is purely subjective—and if subjectivism were true then it must be false for it requires at least one objective truth, and that is, everything is subjective.
Nevertheless, what I wish to point out here is the heuristic nature of film. That there is head room to think for oneself is inherent in the experience of drawing meaning from narrative. Like trying to grasp Heidegger, Kant, or dare I say it, the Buddha, film requires you get your hands dirty. Cognitive benefit is therefore derived from the very process of finding meaning. That is to say, because one must think a little in order to recover the intended meaning this process alone will benefit oneself. This is so for you are forced to think in a new manner, you are forced to come at old problems from a different angle, and it is through getting at these old problems in a new way that can yield fresh insights. This is a good thing. As I have said many times, truths (philosophical or otherwise) are not things we look up in books.
It is for this reason that I will not comment on The Writer in detail. For now I will simply add the following:
The Writer has its genesis with the idea that all beings want happiness and do not wish to experience suffering. This is a tenet central to Buddhist philosophy and a core principal motivating the Bodhisattva commitment. However, I do believe the idea that beings aspire for a good life and actively avoid even a headache is not a principal which only applies to Buddhists. I think it is simply an observation of a naturally occurring innate psychological phenomenon inherent to all of us. This is no earth shattering insight for it is obvious to anyone with an ability to introspect.
“I want to be happy. I do not want to experience bad things, and I have the right to garner the conditions of such a life. So what!”, you say!
But if this is true, as I believe it is, then understanding the causes of happiness in order to obtain the resources to genuinely flourish becomes important on an individual basis. For on one level what makes me happy, what I consider to be happiness producing, may not be the same for you. If you want to be happy therefore it is important for you to understand yourself to the degree that you know what kind of food is good for your body and what food will have you running for the bathroom.
Moreover, if you do indeed wish for a good life, it is important to understand your own psychology so that you may understand what kinds of social situations, for instance, you find difficult. You can then either avoid them or learn from them—no need to point out which approach I believe is preferable. I am not suggesting happiness is purely subjective however-you know what I think about subjectivism-but at some level it is true to say that we can define happiness based on what oneself finds pleasant. By using this analytic strategy in your own life you can not only understand what makes you tick, but what makes you tick well. As it’s your life. Live it; don’t let it live you!
Notice, however, this manner of defining happiness in terms of how the world impacts on you is closely related to a physical level of reality. This implies of course there is a level of happiness deeper than this—a level of happiness which is not derived from contact with a physical stimuli. This kind of happiness is a sense of well-being, a mental and physical feeling that we bring to the world (to borrow a turn of phrase from Alan Wallace).
Moreover, I wanted to explore the idea of whether or not there is a kind of happiness that we can all share in. That is to say, is there a cause of happiness that transcends tradition, culture, and even history? For it is one thing to claim that all beings want happiness and another to see how this manifest throughout history.
While there may be others, it seems to me that one such cause is feeling cared about. Now, I am choosing my words carefully here for I am saying cared about not care for. Being cared for is when someone does something to help another but this does not require that you care about that person. For instance, there may well be some nurses who can care for a patient without caring about them.
When you are cared about, and you yourself care about others, you cannot help but feel life is going well. This sense of well-being is not reliant on the world (not on contact with physical stimuli anyway) but rather, it is something that we can bring to the world.
The message of The Writer is that it is possible for ordinary people living in modernity to achieve this sense of well-being, and they have.
3. Behind The Scenes
In the future I hope to extend the BTS section but for now, and for those interested in such things, I have written a short commentary and have added a couple of BTS shots taken on a cheap point & shoot. I hope you enjoy it.
Shot on a Canon 60d with one lens—a Canon 28mm f1.8 USM II lens—and graded in Magic Bullet Looks, The Writer is my first narrative film.
I am not entirely happy with some of the shots and the script needs to be unless formal. I’m not entirely happy because I think the mood of the piece requires a more defused look (as apposed to direct sunlight) and feel more like a personal conversation. Several friends have pointed this out and I agree with them, I think.
Because of this I tossed up whether or not I should to publish this film as is. In the end I thought it best to publish it now, and if I do indeed redo the film later then I will simply publish it again simply because this is my first every narrative film (I am more interested in narrative than, say, documentary filmmaking).
And yes, I need more lenses! I do have a 50mm f1.4 USM II on order and plan to purchase a set of older Nikkor AI-s glass from eBay as soon as I can afford them. I think this will help somewhat when to comes to visual storytelling? We will see.
The Writer was shot in my small one-bedroom apartment looking out over the Kangra Valley, Dharamsala in India (the home of the Dalai Lama for those unfamiliar with the area). I was there between November 2010 and April 2011 doing research for my Ph.D.
I did not plan this film it kind of just fell together. In fact, it came about because I was bored
working writing and wanted to learn about visual story telling through practice instead. So I looked around my apartment for a suitable subject without luck. It then dawned on me to shoot a film about a writer. I mean I had everything I needed—a computer, a writer, a window for said writer to look out of pensively (I should point out at this stage that the film is not about me, but rather, a writer, any old writer, and if you read the section on my thoughts above you will see that it is not really about a writer either).
At this point I cracked open the Canon 60d and setup for the first shot. This is the shot looking directly at myself over the edge of the laptop (the first shot of the film). From there the words started to appear. What is a writer? At what point do you get to call yourself a writer? Am I a writer? I felt embarrassed to answer even though I spend most days writing. So, the fact that I am the subject of the story is simply a matter of convenience.
As this was happening questions about the writing process kept popping into my mind and so I sat back down to write a line or perhaps two. As it turned out the first half of the piece came together in the first few minutes. This was great as it meant I had a working vision for what I would need to convey with images. I then went back to shooting. Actually, now that I think about it, the whole film—words and pictures—was more or less complete within that first hour. Of course, I had to narrate, add sound effects, and so on but, that first hour laid the foundations for the ideas of the short.
As I said, shooting took place over the course of an hour as the sun began to appear over the Himalayan mountains. In the shots where I am looking out the window I had to keep my eyes shut until I began recording because the brightness of the sun was making them water. This would have made for a good effect if there was a crying scene but as we all know, real men don’t cry, so having a tear roll down my cheek would simply not do! Just kidding of course. But having to set focus then stand there with my eyes closed is all true.
Talking about focus. Given I had the iris wide open in order to achieve a shallow depth of field in most shots critical focus turned out to be an issue. I would have to set focus several times by doing test shots first and then play them back to see if I was in focus. This of course meant I had to move from where I was standing or sitting, and once you move then there is always a chance you will not stand in exactly the very same spot. However, once I got focus (more or less) I hit the record button, take my place in the scene. For the window shots I had close my eyes for a few second and then open them to get the shot without watery eyes. For the most part this approach worked.
I did however have to shoot additional footage (I think there are two additional 6 sec clips) as the music I chose for the piece ran a little too long for my initial edit. This meant I had to wait for another three days until we had similar weather in order to get the required shots. Not a big deal.
In terms of the mood of the piece it is clearly pensive. The script certainly called for this to be conveyed. So there was three basic images I felt needed to be taken. (1) Window shots to show that a writer, writes alone; (2) the writer, writing; and (3) closeups as the piece is actually about the utility of empathy in everyday life, and importantly for everyday people.
Here are a couple of BTS shots taken with an Lcheapo point & shoot Panasonic.
If you have any questions, or would like further information please do not hesitate to contact me. I do respond to every email even if it might take a little long.
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