I’m the director of the low-budget psychological thriller Room (2005), which premiered at Sundance and had its international debut in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in May. Room was produced by The 7th Floor along with Jim McKay and Michael Stipe’s C-Hundred Film Corp. Our four-week, twenty-four-day production was equally divided between two weeks in Texas and two weeks in New York City. The film centers on the mid-life crisis of a bingo hall employee and mother of two in her late 40s who leaves her family to follow migraine-induced, debilitating visions. Lessons learned:
1. Lie to yourself constantly that everything will be OK. Rodney Evans (Brother to Brother, 2004) gave me the best advice before going into production: pray. Once pre-production and financing is more or less in place, what’s the use of staying up late worrying the night before the first day of shooting? Pray to your God—or the Gods of Cinema—that all will be well and admit that it’s mostly out of your control once the ball starts rolling. It will rain, snow, and sleet. Actors will cancel the day (the night!) before their scenes are to be shot. You cannot freak out. You must remain calm. You are acting the part of director as much as your actors are acting the part of characters, and they are depending upon you to play your part well. So, just pray, meditate, enjoy each act of the circus that is filmmaking.
2. Cast your crew well. Cast crew like you would cast actors—interview them intensely, especially keys. Are they socially compatible? Are they creative and bright people with interests that mesh with your own, or can they add a level of contradiction that will keep you honest? Are their references from trusted sources? It’s cliché but true that you are building a small army to go into battle, so having a combined sense of mission (and a good sense of humor) will carry you all through the long hours that lie ahead. During the rush of production, when my energy level was well past spent, I can’t even begin to count out how many creative solutions were offered by crew members. One example: Our New York City AD, Bruce Hall, took detailed notes during our brief location scout in New York. As I hurried through a million tasks during pre-production, from rehearsing with actors to writing checks, these notes became a first draft that DP PJ Raval and I would recast into our final shot list. Everyone’s contributions were encouraged and trusted, creating a group endeavor greater than any single director’s vision. Heck, this is what you are hiring people for—their brains and their creative energy!
3. Strive for simplicity. Having worked as an editor for several years, I knew it was my job to collect as much useful material (good performances, multiple angles, etc) as possible for my own editor. Without this, all the script pages would remain a fantasy. I also wanted to make sure to push actors past their comfort range toward moments of discovery. Discoveries should be made in the moment between the living human beings right there on set, and not in your or the actor’s preconception of the characters. Otherwise a stale, lifeless repackaging of an impression will be captured. We shot on Panasonic DVX100 miniDV cameras with no lights other than practicals and creative curtain hanging. I had a lot to learn and knew that, along with the actors, we’d need the time video could afford to discover these moments. There is nothing worse than watching a pretty indie film with flat performances. Thank God DP PJ Raval is also a master camera operator and a beautiful on-the-fly sculptor of light. Again, a well-cast crew should be trusted and allowed the space to add their own creativity to the project so that you, the director, can concentrate on building moments of life with the actors.
4. No one will understand it (not even you) until it is done! Unless you’re basing your work on formula, no one, not even you, will know if it will work before it is done. When pitching your project (for grants, to producers, to investors) you have to constantly convey the sense that yes, of course, this film will work. Divided as it is into two separate halves, with the central character abandoning her family and known world in the first half then transitioning to episodic encounters with surreal and dream-like apparitions in the second half, it is not a stretch to say that Room challenges narrative assumptions ingrained in most of the heads of American cinema viewers. I, romantically, believe artists should help liberate their audience from these assumptions. Whose life resembles the three act, neat-and-clean structure of a Hollywood thriller? Why do films involving a female character’s psychological journey always lead to her death or to a sappy (and unbelievable in a two hour movie format) liberation and transformation? Where is the third, middle path to be found? Define your terms for what works.
Room’s producer Jesse Scolaro and editor Pete Beaud-reau helped out with innumerable solutions to inherent narrative problems during post including scenes we could lose, performances to massage, the construction of a complex soundscape to compliment visions. But in the end, certain major decisions came down to intent. Until the last moments before picture lock, none of us knew for sure if the pieces would gel into a coherent and moving work of cinema. Figuring that out is the director’s final responsibility.
5. Take responsibility for what you’ve done…then jump off the cliff. I remember being counseled one evening after a screening by colleagues with the best of intentions to change Room’s ending to something more concrete. It was one of those moments when we really have to decide what the hell we are doing. I thought that by deciding to keep the ending that I liked—the one I was sure would provoke audiences—I was closing the door on any sort of career as a filmmaker. I know that sounds melodramatic, but let’s face it, the American media are not exactly champions of provocative political cinema right now (documentaries excluded). Most of my heroes, though, are people who “speak truth to power,” whether to political leaders or to a delusional marketplace. This isn’t a career-making trait, but it is an essential part of my sense of self as an artist and a person, so I decided to stay true to myself and blow my career.
After making that decision, a huge weight lifted, and I stopped caring. I stopped caring about the credit card debt, the pressures of the marketplace, about audience expectations and just decided to trust my love for this little beast of a film. And I knew it would work … for me. If an audience booed, I would score my own secret victory through confrontation. After all, I too have cursed films I now cherish because on first viewing I didn’t “get it.”
Not only have audiences responded warmly to our experiment at Sundance and Cannes, but the biggest shock of all is that Room has sold to one of the most respected international sales agents in the world, Celluloid Dreams. Sometimes, the zeitgeist rewards the gamblers. As a filmmaker, how far will you push the boundaries of convention and how much will you change the preconceptions held both by yourself and your audiences? My advice? Really, really, screw your career if you have the chance, because more important things hang in the balance.