We recently finished production on our first feature movie. You see, Gus Edwards and I (Travis Mills) moonlight as filmmakers when we’re not too busy writing about movies.
But it’s many of the movies we love ignited the spark in me to make The Big Something. The story (briefly) revolves around the death of a record store owner. The cops call it a suicide but his loyal-loser clerk Lewis doesn’t buy it. He navigates the eccentric world that surrounds the store and its customers. With a hipster femme fatale named April as his partner, he hunts down the killer and becomes a neighborhood amateur detective.
We shot for fourteen days in Phoenix, Arizona and had the time of our lives. Here is a brief teaser trailer to give you a taste of our movie.
Now, I’d like to tell you a little about the movies that inspired this story.
I have to begin with Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox, the man who vies with John Ford in many cinephile’s minds as the top director of all time, and my personal favorite. Hawks’ His Girl Friday hit me like a ton of bricks a couple years ago. For whatever reason Bringing up Baby never caught my interest but Friday turned me into an instant Hawks devotee, with his rapid-fire dialog, tough characters, and unstoppable pace. I’d argue that it’s more of an action movie than a comedy.
I recommended that every actor in my cast watch it. Some of them took more from it than others. I was surprised to hear a couple describe it as seeming like a “play”. Though it’s based on one, His Girl Friday is pure cinema for me. Perhaps most of the camerawork is wide (which seems quite refreshing compared to the current no-brainer attitude of cut-cut-shot-reverse-shot) and the story takes place mostly in the newspaper office, but Hawks’ movie is all movie (not a play, not even like a play).
I love the insensitivity of the characters, how quickly they rebound from tragedy (a mid-movie suicide) and this sort of toughness followed me into some of our “grief” scenes in The Big Something. The script was full of all this crying and moaning about the deceased record store owner; somehow not one bit of it felt right, and so I steered the cast away from it as much as I could. There is too much moaning and groaning in modern film.
I was thrilled to hear Quentin Tarantino admit in a recent interview that he has requires his actors to watch His Girl Friday as well. I don’t always enjoy his work, but Quentin is such a lover of cinema and a fellow devotee of Hawks, I can’t help but admire him.
Before I move on, there is another Hawks film I went to for inspiration: The Big Sleep. One in a whole line of Noirs with Big titles that inspired ours, Hawks’ Marlowe mystery is a great example of good mysteries are less about the answers and more about the journey to find them. As the story goes, the “solution” to the crime in this film didn’t make sense to director Hawks or writer William Faulkner. When they went to the original source (pulp author Raymond Chandler) for answers, even he could not explain the plot holes of his own construction. Hawks took note: the movie worked regardless of the holes, because it was fast and fun and the characters were good.
I took that to heart with The Big Something. What did it matter if the story didn’t make sense, as long as the characters were good and true? And by true, I don’t mean real. I mean true: fun, rounded, full, and ripe for our imaginations. This flies in the face of our modern cinema, which makes realism its priority. Audiences and filmmakers are so focused on facts and inconsistencies, we’ve forgotten how to let us ourselves fall in love with fiction.
I specifically wanted Mina Mirkhah (who plays the female lead) to watch The Big Sleep for Lauren Bacall’s performance. Mina’s not a Hawks woman; I wouldn’t want her to be because only Hawks could find and shape those women. But she found that slight toughness with an underbelly of femininity. I believe she got a little help from Bacall.
Another enormous creative source for our film were the silents. I mean the great comedy geniuses: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Of the two, Keaton was our boy. I remember the day Michael Coleman (lead actor) and I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the opening of Sherlock Jr. I wanted to show Coleman how important Keaton’s whole body is to his performance, that every inch of him is either moving or still for a reason and it all contributes to a language of motion.
For some reason, acting seems to have become so much about reading the line in a sincere and natural manner. Our performers (except for a few, Nicolas Cage comes to mind) are so restricted and (the word surfaces once more) realistic. I favor the performances of old, sharp and funny, loud and expressive. I believe at least that both should be practiced. Mina Mirkhah commented at some point during our rehearsal process that my direction contradicted everything she’d been taught. My reaction: good.
There were times on set when an idea would occur to one of us. Doubt might set in for a moment. Michael Coleman would ask me, “Is this too much? Is this too ridiculous?” I would tell him that I’m the wrong person to ask. I am always in favor of trying something ridiculous, outlandish and downright out of the ordinary. If nothing else, I can say that I directed a movie by my instincts, cut from all intellectual self-consciousness and modern restriction. The ghosts of Hawks and Keaton were peering over my shoulder. I hope they had fun watching.
To learn more about The Big Something, please visit our blog: http://bigsomething.wordpress.com/