what it’s like to watch the film now

My favorite scenes are the ones that are different depending on the projector and sound system.  Sometimes you hear the wild natural flange that’s there in  the “foggy day” scene, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes Dani’s red jacket looks kind of pink, sometimes orange. It’s sort like showing bars and tone for 67 minutes.  It’s strange that I longer think about what I wish I’d shot, only what I wish I’d taken out: perhaps because, in theory, it’s never too late for that.  When one finally gives up on the idea of editing yet again: does that mean the project is now autonomous, like a child that finally moves out of the house,  or is it dead?   Should probably export a quicktime and then throw the hard-drive into the river as a way of baptizing the next project.

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picky film

Realizing I made a picky film.  It doesn’t do well with poor projection or mediocre sound. Too much is liminal.  The Mead screening was at Museum of Natural History — a place that is always charmingly out-of-date — but the film suffered from a horizontal gash in the screen. It was all you could look at during some of the liminal stuff  (like when Dani emerges from the fog).  The Brattle felt great and Upstate too. Good crowds, nice image, loud enough. Do all filmmakers ALWAYS want their soundtracks to be played loudly? I can’t bear to hear people rustling in their seats.

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A programmer asked me why I didn’t have dialogue in the film (a film about isolation!).  I told him that originally the character had a pet monkey/sidekick that she talked to, but the mountain proved too cold for the monkey so I had to cut all that out of the movie.

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Now that the movie is fully cooked and out of my hands, I’m surprised by how long it took me to understand everything that was superfluous and could come out if it. There as one shot (a shot of a radio tower) that I held onto for no real reason: I wasn’t attached to it in any particular way. But when I cut it out, everything flowed better, it was like pulling a rock out of a stream’s path. Why did it take so long to see that?

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notes while editing 2011

Things that I learned while editing:

My dear (facebook) friend Monte Hellman says “Perfection is not when you’ve added everything you can add, but when you’ve taken away everything you can take away.”  I keep thinking I’m done taking away, but find more to take.

I love constructed sound.  Recording foley with Holland was a blast. Tickling tin foil with a frayed end of rope for the sound of a flourescent bub. It’s a slog getting all of those sounds in place in final cut though. We competely soundscaped the window-opening scene. No-one would ever believ what it really sounded like in there it was so windy.  I like how it is now: you hear the “clink clink” of the stick she’s using, and the sound of the windows opening, and the wind.  But you don’t hear her body! It’s wierd and I like it.

I also like a cut that introduces layers of sounds at different times, so on some level, you’re conscious of its construction. How could it be “real” when, first you hear her hands moving, THEN you hear the wind below that?

I love surprises: the portal window in the door looks like the moon and the sound is f**cking LOUD. Then you see what it really is.

Holland says I have “temp track-itis” and it’s true. It’s hard for me to pull out any “temp” tracks I’ve gotten used to. They sound right now. Spent a lot of time with Holland weeding out room tones that the sound mix guys added. Should be simpler I think.  Every time I hear a library sound in there that they added -anything we didn’t record — I feel like the aliens in “Bodysnatchers” I just feel like pointing my finger at the speakers and screeching.

I DO feel like we made a musique concrete piece.

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production notes oct 2009-2010

November 1, 2009
Have been thinking that the movie should be about the way this mountain changes from summer to winter, from tourist destination to extremely isolating environment. And the steadfastness of the observers against that change. Have been reading a lot.  Histories of the mountain, accounts by old observers, fiction about getting lost outside. There’s a doozy by Doctor D. H. Bell who spent three nights on the mountain in the 1800’s.  There’s a great passage about trying to stay awake on his first night so he wouldn’t freeze to death, he thinks of everyone he knows in concentric circles.

Also read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Carbuncle” – a little story about people who search for a shining jewel on Mount Washington, finally find it, and decide to leave it on the mountain.  This story makes me want to include a fictional element to what we film up there, maybe based on this story.

November 12, 2009
Got a “dream team” cast and crew.  My colleague and former student Jesse Cain’s will shoot; Holland Hopson, a friend from grad school, is going to record sound; and Dani Leventhal, an artist whom I worked with on another project, is going to play the weather observer.  I can’t think of anyone I’d rather work with tempermentally or artistically. These are three people I admire and whose ideas I want to steal.  We’re going up for four and a half days in mid-January.  It’s going to be COLD. And WINDY. There’s A LOT to do to get ready.

November 15, 2009
No dialogue. All gesture. No acting. Dani’s body and face will have to do it all.

November 30, 2009
It’s gonna be pricey! 1000 dollars just to take the snow tractor (like in “The Shining”) to the summit one way.   Spent a great evening with my friend Susan Fox Rogers who spent three days in a tent going out of her mind listening to wind. She turned me on to the Beaufort Scale – a gorgeous poem of stages of wind including “small trees begin to sway” (fresh breeze), and “large branches of trees in motion; whistling heard in wires” (strong breeze). I’m worried about us being warm. Susan put me in touch with Rich at Rock and Snow in New Paltz, NY whom I’m hoping will get us outfitted.

December 3, 2009
Jesse and I have been researching film vs video in cold temps and decided to go with 16mm film.  An-My Le, who was also on the South Pole, shot with the Red camera and had no problems, but it seems the video cameras (even this one) really need to be babied with hand warmers taped to them and hair dryers gaffed to tripods. Condensation seems like it will also be an issue for us moving indoors from outdoors. Hoping the old workhorse mechanical camera will hold up well.

December 10, 2009
Met with Dani in Rosindale over coffee to talk about her character (as much as there is one).  I wanted to work with Dani because I think she’ll give it her all and love being up there. I also picked her because she is really intense looking – beautiful and often wild.  She may be, without hyperbole, the sweetest person I know, but when I first met her she scared the shit out of me.  (She played my accoster in Jennifer Montgomery’s all-girl version of “Deliverance.”)  Have been thinking about using a different actor for the summer section. She would repeat most of Dani’s gestures just in a different environment. Have been thinking about Weerasethakuls’ “Syndromes of a Century” and Bunuel’s “Obscure Object of Desire” – how compelling it is to (sort of) see the same story twice, and to have to understand two actors as the same character. Dani and I tried to think of ways the two observers could communicate with each other in some way across the time span. Dani had a good idea that they could both be drawing on the same scroll, complete each other’s work in some way.  I’ve been trying to tamp down a too literal impulse I know I have, to keep gestures simple.

December 11
Braden had good advice: just shoot people doing stuff and shoot a lot. He pointed me to a great film by Bettina Timms called “Cosmic Station” that does just that. Simple.

December 12, 2009
I want her to tie knots.  Have been learning bout them – amazing names:  bowline in a bight, the zeppelin, monkey’s fist, the vice versa. Some are thousands of years old belonging to families and classes –a whole taxonomy.

December 13
Dani has a shot in one of her videos I love: a kid draws a semi-circle, erases it, and draws it exactly where it was the first time.  Can I steal her shot?

December 15, 2009
Holland’s got some great ideas about using contact mics up there.  Putting them on ice, freezing them. I first started thinking about the indexical meaning of sound in grad school because of Holland – he spent a year traveling the world recording sounds as if they were photographs.  I specifically remember tree frogs in Thailand.  Before that I thought of recorded sounds as either musical or verbal. Of course sounds carry so much more—a sonic fingerprint of a place and time –and a better sense of space than an image can give.  He’s got the hardest job: how do you record anything BUT wind up there? I think Holland is the most careful of all of us and I’m glad to have his voice in my head as I’m figuring out how to keep us safe, warm, and functional up there.

December 17, 2009
For each person: silk socks, wool socks, boots, crampons, long johns, fleece pants, ski pants, undershirt, wool sweater, down jacket, shell, jacket silk gloves, mittens, mitten shells, balacava, goggles, hat. We won’t be able to tell each other apart.

December 25
Spending Christmas drawing images of what I want to shoot. I get that this is a way to understand your movie that is crucial. It’s not about words, it’s a way to think up a visual logic, what a camera wants to see. No matter how crappy a draftsperson you are, you have to do this.  The landscape is so overwhelming up there –should the camera defer to this or counteract it? How should interiors balance exteriors? One of the reasons I want to work with Jesse is that I think his films have a really strange camera personality that I like – a kind of autistic camera that looks away from people to gaze at things – a pan from a face to lake clotted with weeds—that’s what I remember in his film “The Lakes.”

January 3rd, 2010
It’s snowing outside, Holland, Jesse, and Dani are here in my kitchen tying knots, talking, eating black bean chili, trying on gloves and goggles. Will we be able to work with all of this stuff on? I’m confident we’ll be warm now, but will we be able to hear each other? I think we’re ready, but I’m not at all sure I can truly “direct.” I want to collaborate with these people as much as possible, to respond to what we see up there. Long shots. Take lots of film.

January 5th
accuweather is predicting a cold snap – which may mean 30 or 40 degrees below zero wind chills on the summit.  Have been watching youTube videos of summit observers throwing water into the air – it crystallizes instantly and these little diamonds of ice blow away at 100 miles per hour.

January 7th
Kelly has these shots in “Wendy and Lucy” of the back of Wendy’s head that work magic every time. They get at some in-between first and second person place (like second-person shooter video games) that makes the viewer feel and not-feel at the same time. Kelly says she takes it straight from Robert Bresson.

January 9
We’re in NH. Long drive in the van. Good camaraderie. Staying at the Joe Dodge lodge at the foot of the mountain. Nervous going over shots for tomorrow. Wondering how much visibility we’ll have. Think we have to hit the ground running as soon as we unload the snow tractor up there.

January 16
Shoot was fantastic. I can’t believe I grew up in the shadow of this mountain and I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful, extreme and surprising in my life. Sunrises that looked like we were on Jupiter, sunsets with circular rainbows (Brocken spectres) around them, wild wind, blinding fog, and then a completely calm starlit night with views of city lights below us hundreds of miles away.  We were warm.  Everyone worked really hard. It was hard. We got great shots and sounds I know it.  The Aaton camera was a tank. Laconic Jesse blossomed into a voluminous Energizer bunny. He was really in his element. Dani was up for anything and performed so perfectly without affect (Bresson would have loved her).  Holland put in more hours than anyone else going out again and again to stick a mic onto a rime-covered chain or down a metal tube. I don’t know how he recorded anything other than wind, but he did.

We ate a lot of power bars. The real observers working there were very tolerant of us taking over their space and we were very thankful to come in from the cold and have a meal with them.

On Tuesday it was chilly and foggy so it didn’t take long for the equipment to rime up. We had to wait an hour before shooting each time we brought the camera in just to get rid of condensation. Hair dryer came in handy. We had to scream at each other a lot just to be heard over the wind. On Wednesday it was so windy that we could barely make our way across the observation deck with crampons. It’s a strange feeling to work so hard to overcome a windforce coming at you, to get used to pushing as hard as you can forward just to take a step. It was about 50 mph. I can’t imagine how the “century club” does it – walking across the deck in 100mph wind.  Nor can I imagine 256 mile per hour wind. How do you even fathom wind at that velocity? What does it sound like? What does it FEEL like?

There’s a few things I’m worried about. I don’t know if what we shot with Dani finding and returning the lockbox will work the way I hope (It’s the most narrative-y stuff we shot and needs to cut together to some fashion). We’ll see when the transfers come back.  The four of us got along so well for the five days, but I felt most tense trying to shoot this stuff. I don’t know how to tell stories with images and no words yet.

January 25
The footage is beautiful. The shot of Dani emerging from the fog is so cool. There’s a shot of her walking in front of a sunset that is amazing. I’ve started to sync stuff and there’s a weird kind of revelation when the sound is put with the image: it loses some magic, it puts it in time. I know this as a teacher and talk to students about it all the time, but it’s strange to feel it happen to your own footage.

March 15, 2010
Have been cutting and showing rough cuts to people.  Am generally happy with what I have. Have mostly been following the chronology of our time up there: semi-clear day, foggy day, windy day, amazingly warm and still day.
I need to work more on sound. Thinking about foleying some of Dani’s interior stuff.  The stuff we shot at the cairn with the lockbox is pretty good, though Kelly thinks the cutting is often predictable (in an avant-grade fashion, I think she means). Shots are long and I often wait till Dani leaves the frame before I cut. Duh. I remember thinking about that with Benning’s stuff: OK, here comes the cut. And I was always right. The experimental version of Murch’s Blink Of An Eye, which isn’t always good.

The interior stuff is good, but could be better. The stuff with the box and the knots is sometimes unclear and a little too set-up.

April 1
Found Dani’s summer counterpart: Katya Gorker: a former Mass Art kid and a grad student at Temple. Was going through facebook, saw her picture and knew she was right. She’s a bit like Dani in that she can look really beautiful and ugly too. Not ugly – maybe just mean or feral. Something.  She’s right.

April 16, 2010
Just watched Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”  -so good. I love that way that movie looks—what is the difference between a staged shot and a composed shot? Seems like all film aesthetics come about because bodies don’t fit in a film frame very well, they have to be cropped in some way—thus composition. I want to think more about “bad” composition. Only after viewing did I realize the lovely artwork on the DVD was an image of shit smeared on a wall.

May, 2010
Peter and Mimi gave me good notes (Though Peter failed to compliment me, just Jesse’s shooting.)  Peter said, more or less, be careful about displaying too much. I know what he means. When I worked for a production house in Saratoga during grad school, we used to make commericals sometime that would end with a shot of all the products a company made displayed on a table. My boss Ralph used to call these “Jams and Jellies shots” and I think I have a few Jams and Jellies in there. Nicely composed so you can see everything you need to.  Feels artificial.  I’m learning.  Luckily can re-do many of these interiors with Dani in the summer when we go back. Not loving the penny-whistle stuff.  Too emotionally leading? I thought having her play scales would not do that, but I think it’s there. Maybe re-shoot with her stacking chairs. I fear telegraphing emotion!

July 8, 2010
Drove up the summit this week with Michael and Ben. Summertime on the summit: the magic is gone! Unlovely tourists everywhere (tough to say that, since they’re my people) and the steam train looks rinky-dink and tacky. Rocks everywhere and everything has a bluish-grey cast to it. Maybe Katya should wear yellow? Going to be tough to embrace this difference.  But that’s the idea.

August 1, 2010
Couple of days before the shoot. Everything’s going too well getting ready. What am I forgetting? Weather should be good – some foggy days, some clear days.  Feeling better prepared in terms of images I want.  Dani’s got the knots DOWN: the vice-versa, the monkey’s fist, the bowline.  Here we go.

August 10
OK. That was hard. Hard shoot. Jesse got sick for a day and a half, so I had to shoot quite a bit. Ultimately that was good since I feel more confidant with the camera, but I really lean on Jesse to help me figure out the shots. I felt fearful the whole time. We also shot a bunch of stuff with the wrong shutter angle—and then when we tried to change it, discovered some botched interior bit that wouldn’t let us change the shutter angle. Late night camera surgery over the phone with the guys at Abelcine in LA. I’m embarrassed that I cracked a bit and said something really awful and selfish like, “ I could’ve bought an apartment for what I’m spending on this film, I don’t want to make any compromises.”  But Katya, Holland, and Dani were AMAZING. Katya really rallied especially, started changing magazines, and made me feel more confident. I feel like I must’ve intuited that she would be the right person because of this. Someone less strong would’ve sunk the ship. I love her.

On Sunday we shot tourists all day long.  There were easily a thousand people on the mountain. All types: hikers, bikers, mennonites, muslims, you name it. Hundreds of people looking around. What a strange mountain.

The last morning it was very foggy and we wanted to shoot the steam train coming up one more time. We were ready for it and heard it approach for about ten minutes before it emerged from the fog right it front of us. An incredible sensory moment: to hear something approach you, to grow so loud and not be able to see it until it was right upon you.  A stronger moment in real life than on film no doubt.

August 15
Got footage back. Not loving it. There’s some beautiful shots – the stuff with the flags is great. I’m not sure if it’s the trouble we had that’s making me less excited about this summer section or if it is just HARDER to make it magical with all the people around. Or is it that we already shot everything really cool last winter? I’ve been wanting to call this “The Opposite of Magic” for while – the idea being that the opposite of magic is science, but I think it might read that the summer is the opposite of the winter which was magical. I’m particularly hard on the stuff I shot and I’m realizing the benefits of having two people figuring out a shot: that I can judge duration and synthesize image and sound which is hard to do with your eye glued to a camera. At least it is for me.

I don’t have this figured out yet. I wanted to FIND the movie there. But it might have been better to go in with a more scripted idea. I don’t know.

August 22
I think we have to go back.  I can make a movie out of what I have, but I don’t think I have to compromise yet if I can talk everybody into going back with me. I can’t seem to know what I want to shoot unless I’ve shot it once the wrong way.  I made too many late-night, tired, stressed-out compromises. It’s my nature to make-do. I probably should have had a person there who knew exactly what I planned to shoot—who would call me on it when I said “That’s good enough.”  Is that a producer? I’m ignorant.

September 7, 2010
Going back in a week but it’s already snowed up there! Not sure anything I shoot will match. Will have to see.

September 29
Shoot went well, footage is good I think. Everyone was great – we shot at sunrise from the lunch room watching the sun come up as Katya opened all the windows.  The SOUND was wonderful. Over the din of the slushie machines, the room filled with the sound of wind more and more each time she opened a window till it was as loud as a concert. Wish Holland could’ve been there.  I’m realizing my limitations though – that I’ve now shot a few scenes three times with little improvement. Perhaps the box is too basic, too nondescript. A more detailed, less obvious catalyst? Something found there would’ve been better? Next time, next time.  I’m getting happier with the knots stuff though.  I think Katya hates being in front of the camera. I would. I’m harder on her than anyone else. Why?

Oct 1
What am I learning about editing? Sometimes cuts don’t work and I don’t know why. It’s usually about sound. L cuts and sound bridges work wonders but sometimes there’s a dead spot – like if it goes from a loud sound to quieter sound and you want it to retain some momentum, it doesn’t seem to work. I want to listen to every Bresson soundtrack again and map them out.  One thing I’m trying that I’m happy with is bridging a cut with a sound to point to the artificiality of an edit. That a viewer on some level has to understand that it’s a constructed soundtrack because the sound couldn’t have been recorded with both shots. When there’s a lot of sync, then it works well.

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origins of project

Monday October 12, 2009

Rode Cog Railway to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire on Columbus Day. It’s a lovely fall day in the Valley below — sunny and temperate.  But as the train works its way up the side of the mountain at what feels like a 45-degree angle, the trees get smaller then disappear into fog.  Then the fog freezes on the tiny bent trees outlining them in rime ice.  The temperature drops to around freezing. The wind blows.

This mountain is home to the world’s worst weather and claims the highest recorded wind speed on the face of the earth: 231 miles per hour. I’m coming up to visit the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory where meteorologists have measured the wind speed, temperature, and visibility every hour of every day and night since 1932.

I grew up in the valley below this mountain; I know its profile like I know my own signature. I’ve hiked up it, driven up it, and taken this train before. It’s a strange mountain: the biggest one around, but not very big compared to the peaks of the Rockies. Its weather is surprisingly extreme though and, on average, at least one person dies here every year.  One reason why people die here regularly is because it’s an accessible mountain and in the summer, thousands of people can make their way to the top of it every day.

I’ve wanted to make a movie about Mount Washington for a few years now. My most recent media projects have been animated documentaries about the human desire to measure, map, and chart.  Since my son was born a few years ago, I’ve felt differently about the things I make. I’ve wanted to return to recording images (instead of drawing them) and work with other people, and this project seems like a good way to stay true to my interests but try a different aesthetic approach.

At the top, I get a tour of the Observatory from staff meterologist Brian Clark. It’s a strange building — a sort of huge split-level semicircle with a three-and-a-half story tower story at one end.  The tower is home to the Observatory with living quarters down below, offices at mid-level, and an observer’s turret at the top.  The summit is socked in — you can’t see ten feet in front of you – and then suddenly you’re out of the clouds and you have a stunning 360-degree view of sky and peaks that stretch form New York to the Atlantic Ocean in Maine.  Broadcast towers also take up residency here.  They are covered in rime ice (in effect, frozen fog) that molds a perfect white cover onto everything up here including your skin.  Can a movie be made here?

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