Monday, December 22, 2008

Carver Country, Part 1

I attended film school in the 1980s. Months before I was to graduate, I still hadn’t completed a script for my senior thesis film. Under pressure, I started writing a script about a dead woman’s friends, family, and ex-boyfriends gathering at her funeral. At the end of it one of her boyfriends hangs himself in the funeral’s viewing room. Nice dramatic tension, right? But I didn’t know what happened in the middle. Why did the guy hang himself? Was the woman an angel? A whore? Or just misunderstood? Who wants to watch a film where people stand around a funeral home talking about a dead woman? I realized how severe and self important the story was. Chalk it up to too much Bergman on an impressionable film student’s brain. What I thought was plump with drama and full of yummy Bergmanesque symbolism was entirely over-the-top and would play poorly on film. I put the script in a drawer and forgot about it. That left me with no script.

I was behind on credits and didn’t graduate that spring. I had to attend school for an extra semester to rack up enough credits to graduate. The pressure of having to make a film was pushed until the fall. Meanwhile, I tried to think of an existing short story on which I could base a film. I kept coming back to a film I made during my first year of film school. It was based on a Raymond Carver story "Why Don’t You Dance?", about a young couple that stops at a yard sale. At first nobody is around so they browse the items set out in the yard. Finally, a man comes out of the house and offers them a drink. Turns out this older man is going through a divorce, and decides to sell off all his stuff. The man plays a record and says, “You can dance if you want to,” then ends up dancing with the young woman.

I always loved that this guy put all his stuff for sale in his yard, trekking it out and setting everything up just like it had been in his house. The double bed with his and hers matching end tables. The TV in front of the sofa. I always liked that Carver’s stories were easy to read, about working class couples in relationship trouble; people that I could vividly picture. Although I didn’t always understand his stories because I hadn’t yet been in a serious relationship, and the world of adults was still a mystery.

But my film adaptation was not meant to be an Ingmar Bergman riff. Fellini had not been inspired by the spare prose of Carver. Godard, Wenders, and Antonioni had certainly not spent late nights getting soused to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver was purely American, steeped in the ideals and places and experiences that a European filmmaker like Bergman couldn’t touch.

For my earlier, silent black and white version of "Why Don’t You Dance" I had cast my sister, her friend (both were actors), and my father. I shot it when I went home for a long weekend. I was camera operator, director, grip, and best boy: a true auteur. I did it all with a Bolex 16mm camera. No dialogue, so I included an atmospheric Brian Eno song on the soundtrack. It was well-received by my instructor.

So when I couldn’t come up with an idea for my senior thesis film, I turned again to Raymond Carver and "Why Don’t You Dance." I felt I hadn’t done the story justice the first time around. If I had a budget and a crew and a dolly shot or two and color film and synced sound, I could make a better film. Senior thesis films were a film student’s business card, resume, and portfolio. To legally exploit the film after it was completed I needed the author’s permission.

I browsed reference material in the university library and found Raymond Carver’s address in Port Angeles, Washington. I sent him a letter in the spring of 1986 typed on my manual Smith-Corona asking him if I could adapt "Why Don’t You Dance" into a film. I had no idea if the address was current and, if he received it, whether he would reply.

A month later I received a letter from him in my school mailbox. I kept the letter:

I was so shocked, I got a friend to open it and read it to me. Carver wrote that I could adapt his story and he wished me luck. He also said that if I ever wanted to do anything commercially with the film I was to contact his agent. He didn’t give his agent’s name. I wrote him back and thanked him, asking if he would be interested in seeing a finished copy of the film. He replied a month or two later on an index card. He said yes, he would be very interested and pleased to see the finished film.

Making a film is a long, arduous, and expensive task. Finishing a film can be impossible. I shot the film using a full student crew. I cast my sister again, and her new boyfriend, who was also an actor. They played the young couple. I found a seasoned actor at a regional repertory theater to play the man who was going through a divorce. I shot the film in the fall of ’86. That December, when I should have been graduating, I was still editing the film. My university transcript for that semester included an incomplete grade.

Over the next year, when I had time and money, I edited the film. When I was finished with that, I booked a sound mix, had the negative cut, and the final print of the film was struck. As a finishing touch, I had the print transferred to 1 inch, ¾ inch, and ½ inch videotape. Some of the student films I had crewed on were never finished. Some got finished and went on to win awards. Mine was just done and in the fall of ’87 I finally had a passing grade.
To be continued...


Cynthia Sherrick said...

Love the photo of the sexy sister lounging on the bed. :)

Neil Everett said...

It's really amazing how far technology has come as far as the field amateur film making is concerned. Of course you still have to worry about actors, lighting, script, etc., but you never have to deal with negatives or development. From what I've heard (and seen a little of in the documentary American Movie) it is quite the nightmare. Looking forward to hearing the rest of your story.

Dell Smith said...

Hey Cindy, can you believe that was 22 years ago?
Neil, not only don't you have to deal with negatives and work prints now, you don't have to edit by hand, piece by piece. It's faster now, but nothing replaces literally building a film from scratch.
I loved American Movie. For more movie-making mayhem, check out Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now. Also recommended, Burden Of Dreams, about the almost doomed shoot for Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

Michael Hemmingson said...

The story had had half a dozen student adapts. It's a good one to adapt. Do you have a copy? I am writing Carver's biography for McFarland and Co.

Liz's Mom said...

This is so interesting ! I am touched by your story, and want to hear the next part.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Wow, 22 years! Hard to believe John and I had just begun dating. :) And I had forgotten about the first film with Steve and Dad.
I would love to see that one again. ;)

Walt Tafolk said...

Hey.... you're leaving me hangin' out here... finish this up! And then post the movie somewhere where I can view it. Jezischrist Almighty!