Friday, 31 July 2009

I like working on two projects at once, so I can juggle them when I need a break from one. I'm going to let Bulfinch rest for a day so I can tackle the third round of revision with a fresh mind. In the meantime, here's some more news on the short film, Chatterton!

Cindy Ye has sent me some preliminary sketches for the skirt of the dress she's making for Donna, the forgers' model in their "historic" photos. She's reminded me of how wonderful collaboration is. I think I have an idea of what I want in an element (costume, prop, performance), and then the people I ask to help me with it come back with something even more detailed and alive than I could have imagined on my own.

For an example, here's the sketch I'd sent to her, with a general idea of what I was looking for in a costume:
(I don't have a scanner at home, hence the sort of sadly dark photo.)

Now here are Cindy's drawings for the skirt alone - she'll be doing more once I send her a shirt to modify and incorporate into the costume, and she'll be sending me some photos as she goes along - I'm very excited to see her work! (The image of the front is b/w inverted, but the entire dress will be antiqued-white.)

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Since pre-production work on Chatterton has relaxed a lot in the last week, I've had more time to work on my novel, Bulfinch. Finally, after over a year of chasing the whimsical wistful little story, I've finished a draft that I think is acceptable. At 225 pages (64,000 words) it's still a little short, but a third pass through it should flesh out a few more scenes and then, with some editorial input from my mom, I'll be ready to go huntin' fer agents.

Bulfinch is the story of a university student so obsessed with medieval history that a knight pops out of her imagination and into the real world. Our narrator embarks on a quest to find the device that will return him home, all while keeping him (and his medieval chronicler) out of trouble with the police, angry neighbors, and her crazy Uncle Alvin. In the meantime, the reopened investigation of her parents' disappearance challenges her memories of her idyllic childhood, making her long to hold on to the companionship she's found with her new time-misplaced guests.

Below you can read a sneak peek of Bulfinch. Wish me luck as I begin the search for publication! Also, happy birthday today to Alter-Hannah/HSII/Clone. Have a great one.


Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, medieval art is charming, but medieval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact…”

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The summer I was twelve, my parents disappeared and I moved in with my crazy Uncle Alvin in Baltimore.

How did my mom and dad vanish? That's an interesting story. I wish I knew what it was. They were on a Mediterranean cruise celebrating their twentieth anniversary. Dad had surprised Mom with the trip a week before they left, one of his extravagant gestures that made Mom blush on birthdays and holidays. He presented the tickets to her with a pair of diamond earrings to wear to the captain's table. I ogled the two of them, beaming their megawatt smiles at each other across the table, the two happiest parents a girl could ever dream of. The night before their ship left the Port of Baltimore, they deposited me at Mom's brother's house with a mighty rain of kisses. That was the last time I ever saw them. My story is full of lasts.

I wish there was an event that I could describe that would make their disappearance a reality to you. I've imagined enough possibilities: an identity mix-up that forced them on the lam for crimes they didn't commit; a freak lightning storm that separated the cliff they stood upon, in a terrified embrace, from the chalky bluff; a ride with a psychotic local fisherman zealous to add more tourists to his “collection.”

According to the official record, they were last seen boarding a small boat alone on the evening of August 15, near the Zakynthos sea caves in Greece. And I never moved out of the spare bedroom in Uncle Alvin’s tiny old rowhouse in Hampden, where the pink flamingos nod in front of peeling porches.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Roommates in Forgery: Han van Meegeren

In Chatterton, Daniel and Tom's roommate Brian is the brain of the operation, the washed-up intellectual who initiates their streak of forgery as a way to lash back at the "historical establishment." Brian Meegeren (as his name appears on his fellowship rejection letter) is named for another famous forger, Han van Meegeren. Brian's role in Chatterton is comical, absurd but mostly benign - the real van Meegeren's streak of crime was not.

In the Netherlands in the 1920s, Han van Meegeren began forging Dutch masters to augment his income, despite relative fame and success as an artist in his own name. Later van Meegeren would claim he was driven to forgery by the unrelenting criticism of the art world, but research reveals an even darker side to his faked Vermeers. A Nazi sympathizer, van Meegeren incorporated what Jonathan Lopez describes as Reich symbology in The Supper at Emmaus, his most infamous Vermeer forgery, which was actually believed to be Vermeer's ultimate masterpiece until it was debunked in 1945 - nearly ten years after van Meegeren had painted it.

After the Allied victory, van Meegeren began to varnish his own story as deceptively as he had crafted his old-as-new Vermeers. Claiming that he had sold The Supper at Emmaus to Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring as an act of mockery and defiance against the now-defeated occupiers, van Meegeren became a folk hero. But as Jonathan Lopez reveals in his fascinating book, van Meegeren was actually a collaborator who enthusiastically capitalized on the purchasing power of his country's occupiers and may even have sent an autographed book of his contemporary works to Hitler himself.

In Chatterton, Brian Meegeren is just a frustrated intellectual whose own verbosity is the biggest deflator of others' esteem. But his egotism and inadvertent humor is a whimsical dream compared to the dark chimera created in the art world by the real Han van Meegeren.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Who is Thomas Chatterton?

Thomas Chatterton, the namesake of my next film and one of its characters, was an eighteenth-century poet who forged medieval manuscripts. By the age of twelve, he had produced fakes that were received by experts as newly discovered masterpieces by a long-dead (and, as it turns out, fictional) troubadour. He moved to London to pursue his literary dreams, but met with failure and hard times. At the age of 17, he committed suicide by swallowing arsenic rather than starve to death.

Chatterton's story was an object of fascination a century later for the Romantics, who admired his passionate and tragic dedication to art. I first encountered his story in the Tate Britain art collection, where I came upon Pre-Raphaelite Henry Wallis's 1856 painting portraying his death.

The painting stopped me in my tracks and held me like a trance. At about half-life size, Chatterton's limp body is draped languorously, unmistakably dead, but as if death were a sublime dream. The faint blue tint of his skin, contrasted by the auburn glow of his hair, is another combination of the macabre and sensual - he is drained of life and color, but still magnetically beautiful and youthful. I've never found a reproduction that captures the colors and the power of the painting itself, the awe of standing in the whirlpool of gallery echos, holding your breath in sympathy with the long-gone protagonist.

In my short film Chatterton, Tom Chatterton is the narrator's silent roommate. His presence is the gravitational force that binds Daniel's plans together; he has the artistry to execute Daniel's outlandish photographic forgeries, and never questions the ethics. Creating art is his only ethic. He is the ultimate symbol of the bohemian life Daniel seeks - until it all falls apart.

Monday, 27 July 2009

What, you ask, has become of Chatterton?

Since writing last, I've finished the casting process. Then, over the course of four days and dozens of phone calls and emails, I established a shooting schedule during which all four of my actors, my major locations, and equipment are all available. Production on Chatterton will take place over the first two weeks of September, and editing will be completed by the end of October.

In the meantime, I continue to track down props, including a working typewriter, an easel, and an antique large-format camera with tripod. One prop I have bought especially for the shoot is a beautiful new paintbrush that will appear, plastic sleeve intact, in one of the first scenes. It may be cheap and inefficient as a painter's tool (I don't have high expectations of a $3 brush) but I love the way it looks, its elegant curves and the striking contrast of the bright blue grip with the transparent handle. Every tiny detail counts when constructing a character's world, and this little brush will play an important if subtle role in a long dolly shot near the beginning of the film, in which we explore Daniel's studio and bedroom.

I've also brought on board my friend Cindy Ye to create the only custom-made costume for the film: the dress that Donna wears in the forged historic photo that Daniel hopes will make his fortune. One of several pictures I've sent Cindy for inspiration is the above photo of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a frequent photographic subject of its author, Lewis Carroll (the above photo was actually taken by Julia Margaret Cameron).

While Cindy works on the dress, I'll be story-boarding the animations and creating the drawings and paintings that appear in Daniel's notebook and apartment. I usually don't story-board an entire script, only the most complex sequences. In this case, the scene will involve some complicated shots in which live-action portions of the frame interact with animated parts and every aspect must be coordinated beforehand.

In this animation, Daniel's drawing of Donna comes to life on his notepad, while poppies blush and a handkerchief flies away like a bird in his whimsical fantasy. Below you can listen to the song that will play during the sequence.

Friday, 17 July 2009

What, you ask, is involved in getting an independent film project off the ground?

Most people have the impression that creating a film is an insurmountable task of logistics that can only be scaled by professionals. At least, that's how I felt when I first arrived at college, which is why it took me most of the four years just to shake the feeling that I was being embarrassingly silly simply for trying.

Organizing a film on any scale is a dizzying amount of work, but it can be done if you have the dedication. Like any independent creative project, half the struggle is with yourself, and your determination not to back down in the face of people who think you're crazy, folks who don't show up on time, and Spontaneous Epic Failures (including scheduling, camera equipment, furniture, important costume elements, and the weather).

So, what's been involved with the preproduction of Chatterton so far?

Script: I've written and revised a 14-page script (in screenplay format). This script, which is what the actors will study to learn their lines, consists mostly of dialogue and stage directions.

While the actors study that script, I'll be working from an entirely different one. First I printed the basic script. Then I highlighted each distinct location, and numbered each distinct shot in the margin, even for the most trivial of b-roll inserts. I marched straight through the script, numbering the shots in the order in which they will appear in the edit, with a few exceptions. I like to number shots from an editing perspective because frequently, in my mind, I see the pacing of the cuts in a film before I envision each distinct camera angle. Then, when I go back to edit the footage, the slate at the beginning of each shot identifying its number will help me figure out where in the film it goes.

That's just the beginning of the script break-down. Next, I made a list of each location used in the film, and the characters who appear in each scene. As I schedule my actors, I'll learn who's available when, and that will guide the order in which I choose to shoot scenes. Shooting order will be governed by location, cast and camera position, to require the fewest moves as possible and also to avoid wasting cast members' time.

Once I have a feel for schedules, I'll make a new, third script in which I reorder the numbered shots according to shooting order. I'll keep a copy of the second script for reference; by looking up the shot in the narrative script, instead of the shooting script, I can remember what's happening dramatically in the shot.

Lights, Camera, Action: Equipment is always a headache to acquire. In some cities, there are creative-alliance-type organizations that offer relatively cheap rentals; other venues include small studios that sometimes make extra money by renting out their equipment, or schools, if you have access to one that will allow you to borrow their equipment or rent it for a low cost. I'm borrowing equipment for my shoot. This includes lights, light stands, c-stands (all-purpose stands useful for many things, including hanging lights, microphones, or flags), tripod, high-hat (a tiny tripod for scenes shot on the floor, on tables, or other tricky spots), dolly (a rolling platform or set of tripod wheels for moving shots), flags (large boards covered in cloth used for blocking light and wind), microphone, mic cables and a boom, the camera, and recording media.

Finally, location scouting can be nerve-wracking at first, especially if you're shy about telling people about your film as I was during most of school. But most people I've found are excited to hear about a film and tickled to be able to help, so after overcoming my own timidity, I discovered that sharing my story ideas actually helped. I learned two endlessly valuable things to keep in mind during any location scout: how many electrical outlets are there, where are they and how much wattage can they support before they blow a circuit; and where are the closest bathrooms? The last seems silly until you're on a set. And then it becomes very serious.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Welcome to Bedford Square

Hello! As I enter my adult career and launch myself as an author and an independent filmmaker, I will keep this blog tracking my projects. The name Bedford Square comes from the home of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th century painters, poets and critics who rejected the mannerism of academic art. Unlike later waves of avant-gardists who struck against the establishment with minimalism, abstraction and chaos, the PRB freed themselves from convention in order to better portray lush detail and lavish storytelling.

Now, introducing the stars of my own Bedford Square. This month, you're going to hear a lot about two projects in particular: the revision of my second novel, Bulfinch (and the knight who was misplaced), and the production of my short film, Chatterton. I'm currently in preproduction on Chatterton, in the midst of casting and location scouting.

Chatterton's narrator, Daniel, is out of work, out of inspiration, and lorn for his best friend's girl.

He's also a member of a photographic forgery ring with his two roommates.

Desperate and frustrated, he proposes their greatest project yet: an "early art photograph by a forgotten master" to be sold to the Baltimore Museum of Art. But as Daniel and his abettors work more feverishly to produce the perfect photograph, Daniel's illusions about his bohemian life erode under his feet...

Chatterton is a 30 - 40 minute short featuring live action, hand-drawn animation, and lost and found footage sequences. Thanks to Polyvinyl Records, the entire film will be scored with music by of Montreal. Shooting should happen in early August, and I hope to have a finished film out by the end of that month. Visit back to stay posted on the progress of this project, as I'll be posting updates about all the moving parts involved in organizing an independent film shoot!

Bulfinch (and the knight who was misplaced) is my second completed novel. It's about a history major who lives with her crazy Uncle Alvin in Baltimore, and the characters that one day march out of her imagination and into reality.

I'm currently revising the second draft of Bulfinch, after which I will continue searching for an agent and/or a publisher for this and my first novel, The Queens of All the Earth, a modernized retelling of E M Forster's A Room with a View. Stay posted for stories about the book biz as I navigate the query and marketing process with the guidance of my mom, Libby Malin Sternberg, herself a published novelist. It's a world just as crazy and fascinating as Hollywood. But sometimes with a better vocabulary.