Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Honey Manifesto

A few words, first. Before handing out the script to prospective cast and crew, I wrote this manifesto. I called it a manifesto only partly ironically--I wanted to stake my claim, I was mad about a lot of the movie business, and I wanted people to know that what I was doing was pretty chancy. I also wanted them to know that the strange parts of the script were intentional--indeed, they were the whole point behind it.

It's interesting to go back and read the manifesto today. It's one thing to say ex ante that you don't mind if the film doesn't get distributed. I think, in some ways, I had to go ahead and take the chance not knowing how demoralizing it was going to be to try to navigate the commercial side of the film world. On the other hand, I made it for art with a bunch of people who were motivated by the same thing I was--making this particular film. As disheartening as the commercial stuff was, it's amazing to me that everyone who worked on the film thought we had nailed it: that we called the triple-bank shot in the Manifesto and actually made it.

So, if nothing else, the manifesto gave the production a unifying purpose and theme, and it made everyone go into it with their eyes open. Ironically, I think the person who has the biggest regrets about the aftermath might be me, but that's mostly because the performances in the film and the amazing technical work really deserves a wider audience. Anyway, enough introduction to the introduction.

Honey Manifesto

You’re probably asking yourself what the hell this is, wondering why someone felt the need to write an introduction to a script instead of just handing you the script and letting you make up your own mind. I can’t really answer that, except to explain what I’m not trying to do by writing this. I’m not trying to give you an interpretation of it ahead of time. I’m not trying to compensate for the script’s weaknesses by pointing them out or describing them as strengths. What I am trying to do is explain a little bit about my intentions behind writing it so that you can orient yourself to what is, in fact, a sometimes confusing and stylistically odd script. In other words, sometimes when you read something, particularly something by someone whose work you haven’t read before, it can take a while before you get what the author was going for. You try to fit a square peg into a round hole instead of realizing that the peg belongs in a different hole. So let me tell you, at the outset, what this film is not. This is not an attitude film. This is not a film that tries to be edgy. This is not an “independent” film, with all the rules that apply there. I’m not trying to be anything except honest.

I guess the starting point for the Honey script was when I watched Contempt at the Film Forum and saw the incredibly real fight sequence that dominates the middle part of that film. It was something I hadn’t seen before, and it was incredible. The dynamics between the man and the woman were complex and true to life. She would sulk, he would ignore her, she would ask him some passive aggressive question to get his attention, he would pay attention to her, she would ignore him, he would apologize, she would use that as an opportunity to get in one more free shot, this would make him angry, he would storm off, she would run after him and apologize herself, he would take his free shot, and so on. It blew my mind. This was the first time I’d seen something this real about such a basic, fundamental experience. The second thing that amazed me about it was that Godard basically stopped the film and gave the fight thirty minutes (I wasn’t timing it) to fully explore its ins and outs. Having been brainwashed by Syd Field and likeminded books, I was reminded that you didn’t have to chop everything up into small pieces, that putting the plot mechanisms in action did not have to be the overriding principle shaping a movie. He wasn’t doing this to be cool—he was doing it because this is the way life was. And now it seemed so obvious, so simple—except that telling the unadorned, messy truth is so much harder than being coy or intellectual or overly stylized.

Around this time I was reading a book of Bergman screenplays and was also stunned by Scenes from a Marriage, by the way he picked up on the nuances of where relationships dissolve into mistrust. Both of these works paid extraordinary attention to detail. Everything was not spelled out for you. “The plot” was nothing more than the sum of the activities of the people on screen—that is, it was simply about their lives. It didn’t always make sense, until you reflected on it. In that way, it felt real to me. One of my favorite quotes is this one from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” As you read Honey, I’m sure both of these influences will be readily apparent.

Another influence that led to the writing of the screenplay was what was going on in my life. I had just finished writing a screenplay that was meant to be a commercial script. It wasn’t, by virtue of the fact that no one paid (or has paid) me for it. I had written something that my heart wasn’t into and found out I’d sold my soul for nothing. It was a decent script, but it’s very formulaic (in the “instigating incident on page 10” sense). At the same time, my girlfriend was working around the clock, and we had just decided to get married. So in a feverish 6 day period, I wrote the first draft of Honey. It was the antidote to all that was going on in my life. It exorcised the anger I felt, the fear of commitment, the fear of being alienated and abandoned by the person I love and trust the most, stuff I wasn’t even in touch with. I would write something down and say, “Good Lord. What the hell was that, and where did it come from?” It was scary but exhilarating, because I wasn’t trying to make it any particular thing, neither David Lynch nor Steven Spielberg. It was liberating because I willfully ignored all the “rules” that make most screenplays totally artificial and completely predictable. It had unfamiliar rhythms to it. It was work reading it. Not everything was spelled out in it. And I really, really liked it—so much so that, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t give a shit what other people thought of it. I still don’t.

So, what’s it about, you ask? Honey is an almost unpitchable film, because the whole reason I wrote it was in reaction to pitchable films. There’s no high concept to it (or, as in the typical indie film, a high concept that can be brought in with a cheap budget). There’s no clear-cut story with a smooth, regular arc to it. But it ain’t Hiroshima Mon Amour, either. What it’s about, really, is how crazy things can be. How you can reach this point with another person where they’ve hurt you and you’ve hurt them and you’re both thinking, “My God, I didn’t know I was capable of doing that to someone, and I didn’t know I was capable of withstanding that from someone”, and yet you don’t just run away because sometimes you have nowhere else to go. It’s about finding out for the first time that love is damned hard, that it takes a lot of work and a lot of courage in the face of signs that tell you to turn around and run away. It’s about that moment when you’re waiting for the other person to turn the other cheek and they get mad because they’re thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to do it after all you’ve done to me—you turn the other cheek”—and then you get angry because you feel that way and can’t he/she see that they’re really the ones in the wrong. It’s that moment when something breaks and you’re both waiting for the other to clean it up because each of you is sure that you cleaned it up last time and isn’t it just like him/her to always expect you to make everything better. It takes you through the moment where most films leave off, asking the question, “Is the realization enough?” In the average Nora Ephron film, the movie is about the characters’struggle to realize something, but once the realization comes it’s crystal clear that they need to act and that they need to do particular things to achieve happiness. Honey is about the way it feels in (my) life, the questions you have after the epiphany—is the realization right, or is it another delusion masquerading as truth? Do I have the courage to go through with it if it is the truth? And what if I go through with it, and that’s not enough?

Stylistically, I wanted to focus on small moments—by that I mean, the large moments that appear small. I wanted the film to key you to noticing the little but telling details in someone’s behaviour and/or language that tells you what’s going on. There are few clues in the script; there will be few clues in the film. That’s not to obscure things wilfully, but instead to present the facts and let people make their own judgements, and make people think about the judgements they’re making. There is no “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy” or “This is a Sad Moment” music and lighting in real life, so I don’t want any in my film. And if you think someone is the good guy and then they’re bad, or vice-versa, that’s part of the experience as well.

I also wanted the structure of the movie to be conducive to having really great actors establish that reality. Long scenes will give actors room to establish their rhythms, to get us immersed in scenes without the usual pressure of going to a scene, getting the simple picture (like an insert, or a reaction shot, or whatever) and then going somewhere else. I guess I kind of want the movie to feel like you’re watching a documentary that started somewhere in the middle, where the characters act like they’ve known each other for a while and are not doing or saying things for the audience’s benefit (“Well, Janie, in the past six years we’ve been going out, from when we started at Harvard University in Cambridge until now when we both are living with your parents in upstate New York, I’ve really had to struggle in my job as a screenwriter while you’ve worked as a waitress to support us.”) Like people in real relationships, the people in Honey start and stop on a dime and have all kinds of shorthand for what is going on. In some ways, that will make audience members (and you, reading the script) feel like outsiders—but every character in the script will also feel that same way at one point or another. So I’m not standing around like Oz holding the viewer at arm’s length. What I want it to feel like is life— where just as you think you know enough to make a conclusion, new information pops up where you weren’t expecting it and makes you see what you thought you knew in a whole new light.

Take the first scene in the script. A man and a woman, the woman dressed provocatively, the man drunk and in a suit. Hooker and john, right? The scene plays and at the end, they laugh. Weird. Then you see her pull out a wedding ring. Is it an affair? You see her come home at the end of the day. The same guy is there. You wonder for a second, surely this can’t be the same situation, because we would have had clues that said “Don’t take this first scene seriously, it’s just a put on”. But that would be a different movie. What has (hopefully) happened is this. You “knew” what the situation was. It was clear. But then you learned that the first scene was actually something very different from what you thought it was. You see John and Ruth (the man and woman) in a whole new light— and yet you’re never really going to forget that you thought she was a whore and you thought he was a john. But that’s because there’s a reason they’re role playing—even though it’s not readily apparent what that reason is.

I want the whole movie to have these moments of discovery, and I guess that’s the real reason I’m writing this introduction—to counsel patience in reading the script. To let you know that you’re in capable hands, that I’m not going to leave you stranded, that there is some purpose to the under-writing. It’s like the old riddle about the man who rides on an elevator who gets off at the 16th floor when others are on the elevator but who gets off on the ninth floor and walks up when he’s alone. (It’s because he’s a dwarf.)

The difference in Honey is that there are riddles, but they don’t look like riddles, or they’re not announced as riddles. You’re not looking for the trick. Complexity appears in things you thought were completely simple—and yet the new insight coexists alongside the old. It’s like the Vases/Faces picture that describes either a vase or two profiles, or the “What’s on a Man’s mind” poster of the mustachioed man or a naked woman running down his face. Both interpretations are valid. They come from the same set of lines. But by putting them in different contexts, different aspects are highlighted. And maybe, just maybe, the film can get you to see both sides of the picture at once.

So the script is written with this in mind—or I should probably say “under-written” with this in mind. I don’t take a stand on some things because I want one viewer to say “He’s an asshole” and her boyfriend to say “He’s just reacting to that bitch.” Or the other way around. As you read it, there will be confusing moments, ambiguous lines, rapid mood swings that seem unmotivated until you get all the facts (which is sometimes much later and seemingly incidental), struggles to understand. I wrote the script that way because that’s what I want watching the film to be like. In this, the creators, the viewers, and the characters are all trying to understand each other, to persevere, to live.

Anyone who is thinking about working on this production should understand that it will be difficult, not in the sense of draconian workdays, but in the sense that there will be no refuge in bullshit. I want us all to get together and say farewell to the easy, dead, “movie” interpretation and try to get somewhere rawer, realer, more human. To hold hands, cast and crew, and take a flying leap into unknown territory. I am interested in working with people who want to make a great film, one that is great even if everyone hates it, one where people feel alive during the process, feel open to possibilities, free of ruts, where they push and stretch and pull themselves in places they didn’t know existed or didn’t have the guts to explore. And that means everyone. I want to create an environment where no one feels self-conscious, where everyone feels safe to explore, because what we’ll be doing will be dangerous enough as it is without cynicism and self-consciousness. So that is, I guess the other requirement of working on the film—that you be brave enough to go there with someone when they’re really out there, and not cover your own ass with sarcasm or irony or saying, “Whoah, that’s weird.” Because that’s the kind of slickness, the kind of bullshit, that sterilizes creative impulses. If you work on this film, you have to make the commitment not to cop out on the people you’re working with. Because the situation will be unsafe and uncomfortable, we will have to make sure we don’t alienate or abandon each other. If you don’t want to learn potentially harsh things about yourself or you can’t deal with the potentially harsh discoveries someone else makes, this is not the proper place for you. I realize that’s not the prevailing attitude on most sets. But that’s the point.

Finally, moving to the realm of the practical, here’s what I envision about the production. I think we can shoot it in about 8 shooting days, which means every weekend for a month (or, if people can take off work, less time than that). I want to shoot it on DV, not just because it’s all I can afford, but because a smaller crew lends itself to more intimate performances. It is not merely coincidental that the Cruise and the Celebration were shot on video. I won’t have money to pay people up front, and I have no idea if anyone will be interested in distribution, but a distribution deal is the last thing on my mind. I’m making this film because it’s compelling to me, and simply doing it will be compensation enough. And if you’re interested in making something real, I hope you’ll work with me.

DB, December 2, 1998

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