Archive for category documentary

Documentary Directing: An interview with Dez Vylenz

DEZ, TELL US ABOUT THE “THE MINDSCAPE OF ALAN MOORE”, WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT’S ABOUT?

Dez: It’s a documentary feature film to use a genre word, but in essence it’s a psychedelic journey or a shamanic journey if you like. The vehicle is the writing and worldview of Alan Moore, probably one of the greatest English writers of the last 50 years. Since he’s incredibly articulate, that search for a deeper underlying truth beneath our physical reality is expressed in the clearest possible way, while sketching a portrait of one of the greatest creative minds of our times.

ALAN MOORE IS A NOTORIOUSLY PRIVATE MAN. HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT SECURING HIS COOPERATION FOR THE PROJECT?

I approached him with the main theme of the film and emphasized that the film wouldn’t be focused on comics –although I love the medium– but rather on his magical world view. At the time all the interviews I read about him were comics based, and I thought what a shame. Here you have one of the most interesting writers alive and nobody delves deeper into the creative process. So I faxed him the treatment with the theme: The artist as contemporary shaman.

Which at the time was something I was slowly becoming aware of, that there is a deeper drive and intention to art, when it really comes from inside. So he called me back after the weekend and the ball just rolled from there.

CAN YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE FINANCE FOR THE FILM, HOW YOU RAISED THE MONEY AND THE CHALLENGES INVOLVED IN THIS?

Initially there were some other parties involved, potential co-production deals, where they either would secure finance and post-production, produce the project or do all of it, etc. etc. When it all became clear (and this can take anywhere from months to years) that nothing was happening from any of these companies and people, I had to jump in the fire and start fund raising. Now, when you start out, you will have to beg, borrow, steal, rob, hustle –I don’t know if it was Bill Laswell who said something similar about music– as long as you have a clear plan of how to produce a final result.

So I injected my last savings into the company I founded, started to borrow from family, friends, business connections and gave up my own equity in other projects and business ventures, anything to inject some cash into the film. Then at the last stages business loans were necessary, credit cards, all the stuff I never did in my life as I hate owing money to anybody, especially bureaucratic institutions. It’s been quite tough the last few years, because effectively, the last year was a move from being a production company to a distribution company. Developing the DVD and the infra-structure to sell the film.

In retrospect it was a mission impossible, and had I known about all the obstacles I maybe would not have done it. But that’s why it’s good when you don’t know what you’re doing and just keep going. And I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because the money is stuck for a long time and you’ll get creditors breathing down your neck, so the pressure to deliver something marketable is tremendous.

All of the above was parallel to trying the conventional route by the way, film funds that rejected the 80 page business plans and submission. Distribution companies were interested after completion, but too scared to take it on as they considered it too much of a “niche”, or they couldn’t convince they really understood the film and how it had to be packaged and marketed. So a good thing that I moved ahead independently.

WHO WERE THE OTHER IMPORTANT MEMBERS OF YOUR PRODUCTION TEAM?

Quite a few and all really talented people, some also on the threshold of developing their skills further, some I’ve lost contact with as they went their own way. Moritz Winkler the cinematographer and editor was a close collaborator and although not into comics, was able to translate the feel into the cinematography and was great to work with in the editing process.

Brian Kinney the special make-up fx artist was a big Alan Moore fan and knew every letter and image of his work, much more than I did in fact. So not only did he create the first ever V for Vendetta and Watchmen-Rorschach masks, but he was also like a walking reference book to check if I got things right. He later moved back to the US and after some odd jobs ended up at the special make up department of CSI New York. We had planned to do some brutal prosthetics in a martial arts film as in the 70s Japanese films, but we later saw a lot of that in Kill Bill unfortunately and the whole mainstream has gone more gory, so we’ll have to find new ways of doing things.

Drew Richards, the music composer created a great score without having seen any of the film. Additional music was provided by Spectre, a hiphop producer from Brooklyn and also by Lustmord. There was also one track by Bill Laswell and Alan Douglas. All of their music was very influential in writing the film, so it was a good decision to contact them all early in the process.

John Coulthart was involved after the film was completed, with the publicity material and DVD design. One of the few people I know that have that perfect balance between great technical knowledge, understanding of aesthetics and narrative and the whole media business in general and his work was inspiring during the tedious DVD post-production process.

Then there were a lot of other people involved along the way, e.g. Ivor Goldberg who did a lot of the high end computer animation, Mano Camon who edited the bonus interviews and so on.

YOU SHOT ON 16MM? WHAT WERE THE REASONS YOU CHOSE TO SHOOT ON FILM RATHER THAN A DIGITAL FORMAT?

Yes, Super 16mm to be exact. Film, what can I say, has more latitude, has a great contrast and subtle shades, while video is too sharp, edged and the contrast between shadow and light is just harsh. For time lapses as well film is much better and I felt that this would be the only chance to capture a magician on celluloid, so film had to be part of that alchemical process. Film is magic. And another thing is, because it so expensive per minute, you have to be more decisive. I often see people on video shoots and it’s too relaxed, too much hanging around while they just keep the camera rolling.

DID YOU HAVE A FIXED AMOUNT OF TIME TO SHOOT WITH ALAN MOORE?

Yes, and it wasn’t much. We had one day to record an audio interview. And just one day to shoot him, as he was in the busiest period of his career probably. He was writing towards his retirement from mainstream comics, in particular on the ABC line for Wildstorm, so he was toiling away on 5-6 series a month!

I realized later he probably wanted to get out of the DC yoke, because they had bought up Wildstorm at some point, which meant he effectively was working for them again. Now he’s contractually free to do anything he wants.

A few months later in August 2002 we did a few hours of pick ups, his hands laying down the tarot. That was it, not much time but it forces you to plan things out and get out of the grip of Murphy’s Law.

THERE ARE ALSO DRAMATIC SCENES WITHIN THE FILM USING ACTORS. WERE YOU RECREATING SCENES FROM ALAN’S WORK?

DV: Yeah, in fact we did the first Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Hellblazer (later made by Hollywood as Constantine) adaptations ever, which was a great challenge and experiment. I decided that mood, atmosphere was the thing to go for, just to give a flavour of the man’s work.

WHEN AN ACTOR COMES TO YOU TO AUDITION, WHAT DO YOU HAVE THEM DO?

I often ask them what kind of music they listen to and why. This gives me a much better idea of what kind of emotional landscape they go through. Then I ask them to read bits of dialogue from a page. Also testing how well they can memorize a part of a script very quickly and if they are able to improvise. But in general it’s important to see if they are not too wooden because of stage play experience, not too cocky about being the next Brando –or even worse one of those contemporary pretty glamour boy or modelly girl faces– and if they will be chilled out enough to work with for a number of weeks.

In film you don’t have to be the best of buddies, but it’s important that people are at least well mannered and pleasant to work with over a longer period.

CONCERNING PERFORMANCE IN GENERAL, HOW IMPORTANT IS A PROPER AMOUNT OF REHEARSAL TIME FOR YOU AS A DIRECTOR AND YOUR ACTORS BEFORE SHOOTING?

The guerrilla shoots I’ve done never really allowed for more than a few days, but I would say a week to get the whole feel of the script right and another week to go over each scene is a minimum. The more you can rehearse the better, but this depends on the actors as well. What is the method they use, do they like to improvise, do they have a good memory? And there is a point where you just have to shoot, I don’t believe in this Kubrick nonsense of 200 takes. Respect to the man’s oeuvre, but that is just being indecisive. I usually shoot one take, then another 2-3 as backup. With the martial arts project I’m planning, rehearsal time will be at least 4 weeks I would say of training and choreography, but I’m aiming to get real practitioners which will make it easier.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO CHANGE THINGS WHEN YOU’RE NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT FROM AN ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE?

Tricks. Actors don’t like them, but they can work. A famous example is I think Rosselini’s use of glycerine or onions to get an actor to cry. Fact is film is an illusion and it’s whatever looks right on screen that counts.

I did similar things with having an actress spray heavy perfume on herself just before an actual take, so it would subliminally calm the actor playing opposite her, who was all hyped up.

SOME DIRECTORS ARE MORE COMFORTABLE FOCUSING ON THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF A FILM THAN ON THEIR ACTOR’S PERFORMANCES. WHAT’S YOUR VIEW?

That’s a film school mentality. We all do it when we start out, as you’re learning about the craft. But it’s like language, learning about the letters, then showing off rhymes and how clever you can be with the grammar, without really saying anything to greater emotional impact.

Some people never evolve beyond that point, but they’re lucky enough to have calibre actors to give reasonable performances. Hollywood is a good example, it’s for 90% a CGI mentality now. Boys with toys.

WHAT OBSTACLES/CHALLENGES DID YOU ENCOUNTER WHILE SHOOTING “MINDSCAPE”? HOW WERE THEY RESOLVED?

Too many. Not enough money, people not living up to commitments of certain jobs, too much to organize with no production or location manager, etc. etc. But you have to stay calm, continue and improvise, that’s the nature of guerrilla film making. It has a lot of limitations, but sometimes they force you to be more creative and it keeps you sharp.

WHEN THINGS DON’T GO TO PLAN, WHAT DO YOU DO TO REMAIN CALM IF YOU FIND YOURSELF BECOMING FRUSTRATED OR FRAZZLED WHILST SHOOTING?

Over the years I’ve learnt to deal with it much more as I didn’t use to be patient at all or not very considerate to what was going on around me. The only goal was to get that shot and if it didn’t work out I got frustrated. But in martial arts you have to be able to suspend your emotions otherwise you will simply end up dead in no time, so I’ve learnt to be more flexible. Meditation helps, but on the actual shoot there’s a really good mantra when things get hairy: Fuck it.

Once you realize you can step back from it for a short break, it helps tremendously. Break for 10 minutes, let everybody do something else entirely and come back to it with a fresh mind.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOU HAVE LEARNT AS AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCER/DIRECTOR FROM MAKING THIS FILM?

Too much to go into detail. All of the above. Planning, decision making, legal requirements before you step into the battle zone, evolving the bullshit radar, unilateral movements. Let’s put it this way, I think it was the Dutch football coach who developed total football, Rinus Michels –nicknamed The General– who said: Football is War.

I’m not a sports fan, but I would say: Film is War. You got all these resources, equipment hired for a lot of money and people lined up to do a certain job. Don’t waste it, be efficient. If you want to fuck around and be indecisive go buy a canvas and a few brushes, then you have all the time in the world to play the artist. Film in its intention is an art, but in execution is war.

IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL AGAIN WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

Get a producer. Get a sales agent. Secure all the financing first before shooting anything. Make sure any commitments from third parties, companies or whoever promised golden mountains, were all laid down on paper. Create milestones. If at a certain point it becomes clear they can’t deliver, rework the terms and change procedures and plans accordingly. I wouldn’t wait as long as I did to hear back from the various parties anymore, because that lost time can never be given or bought back with all the money in the world.

And to continue on your previous question, I’ve learned that Ego is something you can not take out of the equation. As much as you might be passionate about just getting the project finished, all these Egos are involved that are more keen on the credits, fame or money than you would expect, even if they don’t complete their responsibilities. Before you know it, you get a lot of flack and accusations thrown at you. So whatever you do in the business, because there are so many parties involved, you’ll always get criticism. But you simply can’t please everybody and have to continue with the best of intentions and take the winning team with you to the next project.

DID ALAN MOORE SEE THE FINISHED FILM AND WAS HE PLEASED WITH WHAT YOU’D DONE?

He really loved it. He gave some great compliments that were inspiring as hell, so whatever criticism I will ever get, having the blessing from the man himself –with such a high standard of criteria in narrative– made it all worthwhile. And a benchmark to aim for.

AT WHAT STAGE IS THE FILM AT NOW? WHERE CAN PEOPLE SEE IT?

After a number of festivals and all that, it’s available on DVD now with a lot of bonus material and on sale at: www.shadowsnake.com. Completely independent, but it will be available at retailers at some point.

IF YOU WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

Probably a combination of villain (in the sense that I would be a vigilante) and hero, who could read minds and make the heads explode of corrupt politicians or figures who continuously squeeze out the people and raping the planet, effectively stagnating any spiritual growth. I’ve seen lives and countries destroyed because of that. They are the real villains.

But as that seems to be part of the system we live in, maybe having the power to just become any animal I want at any time and just get out of human society seems a more liberating choice. Fly away to use an old cliche.

WHAT POWERS/COLOURED PANTS WOULD YOU HAVE?

Black pants. Maybe for the hell of it with that red groin piece and chains that singer from Cameo had in that 80s Word up video. It takes balls to wear something like that.

WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT AND WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE FOR DEZ VYLENZ?

2 films. I’ve put everything else in the fridge and am focusing on the scripts for a martial arts project and a jungle sort of mystical thriller-drama. They’re all part of the Shamanautical Series and parallel with that I’m writing a novel where these characters are developed in depth. I can’t elaborate too much on it till it’s all done, but the future will be that kind of film and story. I’m interested in mystery, myth and mystical planes.

Mundane stuff can be done better by other people, but I just got hired to write two feature screenplays for other kind of material, so we’ll see.

Besides that I’m doing a lot of work as Strategy Consultant, which is not always film related but it pays the bills and is great business experience. And with the whole funding process in the film industry being such an arduous process, I have a back up, because I don’t want to get stuck in development hell.

I love film, but there’s more to it and over the years I’ve become more of a martial artist who works in film rather than the other way around. Martial Arts are a much purer art form as you don’t do it for show or entertainment to anybody else, just for the art. So me retreating from the whole media thing and just living my life somewhere in peace and quiet and teaching is also a very realistic option.

But I’m not disillusioned with the entire film industry as yet, so let’s hope I get at least 3 more films done in the next 10 years that will stand as engaging narratives.

WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF FILM MAKING ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN OR HEARD ABOUT?

Milos Forman said something like: A director has to be good at all the departments, but he should have people working there who are better than him.

THANKS DEZ

Dez Vylenz is a Director, Writer and Martial Arts choreographer based in London and Amsterdam. For more info on Dez’s work, visit Shadowsnake films.

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