A Brief Hiatus

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski


Transmutative Cinema is going on a brief hiatus as we program the next month or two of screenings and restrategize our approach.

Be seeing you shortly.

Full Interview with Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin

Posted in Uncategorized on September 15, 2009 by somestumble

1) What inspired APART FROM THAT, not only its characters, situation and setting, but its unique visual style?

We’ll overhear a conversation between a husband and wife in a Joanne Fabrics, or at a greasy spoon frequented by farmers with actual cow shit still on their boots…and they’ll be talking about someone’s ugly new wife or internet gambling…we smile to one another, knowing that those little everyday human interactions will become a character, or a scene. As we see it, the small interstitials say so much more than the bigger, life-altering moments. And these moments arrive with such a distinct sense of place, color and light, all of which informed the visual style of “Apart From That”. We’re also inspired by a number of photographers; Nan Goldin, Uta Barth, Jeff Mermelstein, Eugene Richards, Joel Sternfeld, Shawn Records…as a result, we created a visual script prior to shooting that consisted of images we had taken, mixed in with these extraordinary photographers. It was a three-ring binder loaded with visual inspiration that kept us
honest whilst shooting. There were no shot lists or storyboards—only that book.

2) In an era where shakey handheld cameras are symbolic of ‘reality’ you often work from a locked down camera with rather high angle shots and slow pans, what informed these aesthetic decisions?

The aesthetic was always driven by, very simply, our interest in the emotional exchanges between characters. We wanted to keep the perspective simple and focused on the narrative content. Sometimes, the camerawork in some films can be a tad too conspicuous and coercive for my taste, distracting from the meat and soul of the moment. I never want the audience to be aware of the “stylistic auteur” behind the camera. Fancy camera moves and tricky effects mean very little to me. These things only manage to jar the audience and take them out of the story. The still, open wide shot is something we gleaned from directors like Tarkovsky and Kieslowski -there is a subtle serenity that enables the viewer to pick up the details and textures without being guided to them.

3) As artists when can you tell if you’ve made a good decision vs. a bad decision and can you give an example of each?

We don’t really think in terms of “good” and “bad” when it comes to our artistic choices. Sometimes, we’ll go in a narrative direction that doesn’t ultimately manage to express what we’re after, but that attempt is a necessary step in the process. You have to see it play out before you know whether it hits the mark or not. And, sometimes, it’ll be right for me, but not for Jen. Another added benefit to having two directors. It’s really about experimentation and exploration. The only “bad” choice, for us anyway, was trying too hard to force an exact manifestation of our initial vision—it was far more interesting (and artistic) to throw out our ideas and see what other people might contribute. A firm and demanding vision can be incredibly stifling. And boring.

4) How did you go about casting?

We wanted people, not trained actors. Regular folks with regular 9-5 jobs, who might be able to take our script, throw out what isn’t useful to them, and add elements from their own lives that would further deepen and enliven these characters. People who could provide the tiny details that we couldn’t come up with in a million years. So, we posted flyers in grange halls, harbormaster offices, transmission shops…we personally approached the Norwegian Man’s Choir, the people of the Swinomish Reservation, the Daughters of the American Revolution…holding casting sessions anywhere from a coffee shop in Seattle to a senior center in Burlington…for 6 months we did this, auditioning people for roles that didn’t immediately appear to suit them…casting against type was a big part of it. Again, we were more interested in being surprised that following any pre-determined ideas about what a character should look (or act) like.

4.5) When directing your actors, many of them I believe are family members or friends, how do you explain what you are seeking from them in a scene?

We wanted each cast member to be willing to experiment, to try anything, to express a departure from easy emotions. If they can throw everything out there, and speak—really speak—to one another, and LISTEN to one another, rather than perform for the benefit of the camera (or the director), that’s the good stuff. Also, we really wanted the entire cast to have a good time. To play. So, initially, we wouldn’t tell them much. They would hand us their initial impressions, and we’d tweak from there.

5) Were your actors surprised with the outcome of the performance and in what ways.

Many of the cast members had no idea how movies were made, so a good majority were surprised by the authenticity of their own performances. Many of them told us that the first time they watched the film, they didn’t see the film. They only saw themselves. After subsequent viewings, most of them were able to detach themselves from their characters, and see the forest for the trees. A wife of one of the leads told us that her husband was more affectionate with his fictional, cinematic wife than the real thing. Oops.

6) So, when you aren’t making films what are you doing?

Listening to people talk. Taking photos of them when they aren’t looking. Character research, basically.

7) Did you make short films or other films or any other type of art before APART FROM THAT and if so what did those experiences teach you?
I made a feature in film school entitled “Agave,” and Jen did one called “Where I Am.” Both of these films taught us, in very different ways, to have fun when making a film. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to enjoy yourself.

8) Cassavetes once said he wished he could just smash a camera because it got in the way of the drama in front of the camera. Your film has a rather high level of attention to technical detail in regards to composition and framing. How important is the look of your film and how were you able to make sure the camera did not interfere with the action in front of it?

When you have a large crew with a grip truck and a lot of equipment, the whole thing can get damned unwieldy. I never sensed a conflict with the camera, necessarily; we have a great DP who we use for almost all of our films (Erik Forssell), and he knows how to be, well, discreet. In terms of the drama. We also had a system in place where I would give him a special nod that only he would see, and he’d roll on a rehearsal or a moment when the actors didn’t know they were being filmed. Several shots in the opening sequence were the result of this. Also, because the drama of the scene is essential, often the camerawork suffered, in an attempt to capture the random movement of truly improvised moments. We had no blocking and no focus puller, so Erik had his work cut out for him. His ability to maintain a strong sense of composition within those parameters is just a testament to his skill. Also, Jenny has an incredible eye. She found light and
composition in places no one bothered to look.

8.5) Can you give a brief rundown of the equipment you used and where you got it from (rent vs. own?)

Almost all of it was rented. Aaton XTR Prod S16mm camera, prime lenses, sticks, basic grip truck…we shot on a couple different Fuji stocks. We’re looking forward to shooting the next feature using exclusively our own equipment.

9) Many of today’s films rely on their soundtracks to convey the film’s emotions, most use popular music from the past or up-and-coming artists looking to break big, obviously your film uses a lot of music, but it doesn’t have the feel of a playlist or mix tape, can you speak to role of the musical soundtrack in APART FROM THAT and how it was conceived?

We wanted the music to be an extension of the diegetic soundscape that might serve as a characteristic of the environment within which the characters lived. It was specifically composed with this in mind; a wind chime or a car engine would slowly assemble into an atmospheric melody that would then progressively dissipate. We didn’t want the music to call attention to itself or offer instruction in terms of how the audience should think or feel. We tried to steer away from recurring melodies as well. Despite the fact that one was applied to the character of Leo more regularly, we didn’t want a distinct character “theme,” because we didn’t want to give any indication that these people were stagnant or stable in any way. They are as varied and unpredictable as the rest of us.

10) When it came time to distribute your film you chose to do-it-yourself in a wonderfully crafted package that includes a book, a CD of the soundtrack, and the DVD. In an age of online videos, video on demand and of course pirated or ripped DVDs you seem to have given people a reason to purchase a physical copy. Can you speak to how this decision came about and the results of going this route?

Having been inspired by photography books, and having used a largely photographic script on set, we felt that it seemed only natural that the ultimate release of the film take the same form. Also, while we were on the festival circuit, we noticed that those who responded to the film were often people who spend a lot of time in bookstores. Or people who would collect random snapshots from thrift stores. Rather than choose to have the film be lost in a sea of titles at Blockbuster Video, we hoped that it would be discovered by someone who had been drawn in by the images from the film.

11) What’s next for you and your company Foreign American Pictures?

Two new features and an episodic series entitled “Whiskeypriest,” the first episode of which recently premiered at CineVegas.

12) What advice do you have for filmmakers?

Don’t wait for permission. Just start making. Also, to quote Cassavetes, “If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, we’re doomed to face the consequences.”

An Interview with Filmmaker David Ball

Posted in Uncategorized on March 6, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski

Making Honey — Going for the Gold,
While Staying True to the Sticky and Messy Nature of Experience

An Interview with Filmmaker David Ball

The following text is excerpted from an email exchange between film programmer Wesley Tank and filmmaker David Ball, the creator of the amazing (but still under appreciated) Honey, which I programmed in 2007 for an independent film festival at Harvard. (There are many mentions of the film on the site, but click here and here to read a few comments by Ray Carney about Ball’s film. And click here to read “The Honey Manifesto,” a statement written by the director about the project.) Since the following text was assembled from several different emails between Tank and Ball, I would note that I have edited it very slightly, and in few places changed the order of the questions and answers to improve its intelligibility. — Ray Carney

Wesley Tank: I recently saw Honey via internet stream, and I loved it. I would love to include it as part of a series of films I’m screening in Milwaukee called “Transmutative Cinema.” Would it be possible to acquire a DVD copy of your film, as well as your blessing to screen? Thank you for making such an excellent film.

David Ball: Thanks for your kind words about the movie.  Can you tell me how you heard of it? I’d be happy to send you a copy of something I wrote before making the movie, the Honey Manifesto, which was/is an artistic mission statement of sorts.

Tank: I heard about it through my friend Ryan who is helping me program this series. I believe he heard about it through Ray Carney.

Ball: Ray is the man.  He has really inspired me.  I wish he ran the world.

Tank: I really thought the film was amazing. Something about the way it was written, and the way energy is so nicely balanced between the actors kept me in a constant state of diving forward, trying to understand, unnerved, that it really felt luminous by the end when I realized nothing would be tied together in a neat little bow. What have you done after Honey?

Ball: I wrote a novel a few years ago, and it was as artistically successful/commercially unsuccessful as the movie.  Now I’m focusing on an equally quixotic career–legal academic writing about prison reform–and am probably going to hold tight until my kids get a little older and I get tenure.

Tank: I am very interested to hear what your approach was in making this film. I’m also curious to know how the transformation happened between filmmaking to writing fiction, and then to legal academic writing.  A dramatic twist!  I’m in the process of completing my first feature- as well as in the process of getting married, so I am beginning to understand how having a family can make decision-making become more practical.  In any case, I really hope you make another film.

Ball: I made Honey just before getting married, and I guess I was working through some shit. I just celebrated my 10th anniversary, though, so I guess it worked. The filmmaking and writing fiction were just different sides of the same coin. I wrote fiction before filmmaking. To me, directing is all about being the last word: are we done? yes. is that the cut you want? yes. Is that the performance we want? yes. Is the lighting OK? etc. I was a bit stymied in my writing (I say in hindsight, which, counter to the old adage, is just as blurry as foresight), and I had the confidence to write a novel after making the movie. The novel took a long time and allowed me to work through even more shit, so it was worth it, but the commercial side of things was equally heartbreaking. So I went into legal academia. I still write about things I care passionately about, but there’s a better market for it. I spent two years on an article and it just got picked up by the Columbia law review. So, odd as it sounds, I’m still pursuing my muse, just in a way that makes raising a family possible.

Tank:  You seem to have a very clear vision of how to maneuver the mangled/unsteady emotional situations of Honey.  Can you give me an idea of your process during shooting/editing?  Was there a ton of rehearsal?  I noticed you do some cutting between different takes, getting a character saying the same thing in more than one way.  I’ve been doing this in my film, and I was excited to notice it in yours.  How many takes would you normally do of a scene?  What was editing like?  I really enjoyed the writing.  Was it your intention to keep the audience’s stomach in its throat?

Ball: It was casting and getting a crew that was committed to the idea. The manifesto (click here to read David Ball’s “Honey Manifesto”) was really key to getting everyone to (a) know what I was after and (b) commit to it. And everyone knew that everyone else wanted the same stuff. I did some different stuff in casting–I actually worked with actors and gave them direction to see what it was going to be like to work with them.

As for editing, I worked on it with my best friend at the time, Josh Apter, who was fucking superb and who midwifed the film. We’d watched a whole lot of shit together (Cassavetes, etc., basically all the films I name checked in the Manifesto plus Soderbergh’s films, particularly the Limey) and we just went for it. For me the script was crazy, then the performances were crazy, then the editing was crazy. I approached each step as the opportunity to do the same kind of work to a different part of the film, with the same goals and the same commitment. It wouldn’t have been right to do a “safe” edit after writing such an unsafe script and getting such unsafe performances.

So we did rehearse a lot, and the actors were fucking amazing. On the rooftop with Charles and Ruth, Laura (Ruth) did her lines in ONE FUCKING TAKE. Seriously. The lighting you see at the end of that scene is completely real. Chris (Charles) got 2 takes for his, but only because the batteries on the sound went out. And before Laura started her take, she said, “I don’t buy it. I don’t know why she does this.” It seemed really self-destructive. But we’d worked on it enough where we had some shorthand to get her back into it. And I obviously loved working with all the actors, but particularly Chris, Laura, and Anthony.

We shot everything in rough order, which also helped.

One other thing is that I was open to working with the actors in different ways, and the DP, another great friend and artist named Pete Olsen, was open, too. So, for example, in the first scene where Ruth pours a beer on John’s head, that’s REAL. I’d been saying cut before then, and then we were about to take a break, so I just decided not to say cut. So the look on Laura’s face as you can see her thinking, “Am I going to do it?” and then the smile as she actually does it, and the shock on Anthony’s face, all that is gold. Pete does an amazing job of tracking the action from her face to the can pouring to Anthony’s head, and then they just went for it the rest of the way. Almost all of the rest of that scene is from that one, powerful take.

One other note–those slaps were not Foleyed.  Anthony took one for the team.

I should also note that we shot that scene in a HoJo’s across the street from Madison Square Garden. A few days after we shot that scene, the NY Post came out with a story listing the top ten places to buy sex in NY. That was one of them. No wonder they didn’t bat an eye when one woman and 6 guys checked in at 4 p.m. and checked out at 4 a.m.

Anyway, in answer to your other question about writing, the writing came very easily, which was weird. I think I owe a lot to reading the script to Scenes from a Marriage before seeing it. Bergman does this thing where no one responds immediately to anything. It comes out a few lines later at the earliest. I tried to use that. I also didn’t want anyone to say anything meaningful, which is why the rooftop scene is so difficult. But mostly I just let myself be as weird as possible.

As for the audience’s stomach, I didn’t want to put anyone through anything I wasn’t putting myself through. And I think that’s why the way I worked was so important. I didn’t ask the actors to make themselves vulnerable so that I or anyone else could laugh at them. I was right there with them. And the shit was really hard, but they were such a great group.

I think even the one scene that I probably fucked up on as an actor’s director turned out well–the “joke” scene on the couch between Sharon and Charles. I’ve known Katie Firth forever, and something about that day I was just indecisive. We did that scene a billion times, and I think I really ended up not protecting her as much as I should/could have. I wasn’t articulating what I wanted, and I didn’t think she was giving it to me, so we just kept going. But she delivered, all right–I think I inadvertently beat her down to get that performance, although, for all I remember, we used really early takes.

Anyway, thanks for giving me the excuse to reminisce.


Posted in Screenings on February 28, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski

Saturday, March 7th (10pm)
Sunday, March 8th (8pm)

Transmutative Cinema is proud to present David Ball’s Honey.


Honey focuses on the intertwined lives of two twenty–something couples, but rather than being cool and reflective, they and their interactions are hot–blooded, high–stakes, and more than half out–of–control. Honey’s characters don’t stare at their navels and take their own pulses, but fight and argue and jockey for romantic dominance. – Harvard Film Archive

From the Honey Manifesto:
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 …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…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.

Complete Manifesto

-David Ball
2004 | Color | Sound | 84 minutes

presented on DVD

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Saturday, March 7th (10pm)

Sunday, March 8th (8pm)

What Happened Was…

Posted in Screenings on February 26, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski

Saturday, February 28th (10pm)

Transmutative Cinema presents Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…

Tom Noonan is perhaps better known for his work in front of the camera often playing villainous roles in films like Manhunter or Robocop 2 or his eccentric and memorable parts in Heat and Mystery Train. If you don’t recognize his name you certainly may recognize his large frame, bald head, and menacing smile. Behind the camera Tom is also one of America’s greatest directing talents.

His films begin first as stage plays. Tom Noonan owns his own theater in New York, where he and his cast rehearse their parts before a live audience. Once the theatrical run of the play is done Noonan and crew take the story to a set and make the film. Working with only two actors and a single location Tom Noon is able to create a roomy dramas that is anything but claustrophobic. What Happened Was… starts as a simple date, but soon unfolds into an exploration of the disguises we wear and the false assumptions we make about our co-workers and ourselves.

“Having given up, I went to dinner at a friend’s house. During the meal I asked my friend how her brother was (whom I’d never met) and she said, “Oh, he’s such a jerk. This woman he works with asked him over for dinner. Well, he went and halfway through the meal he realized sensed romantic overtones and asked, ‘Is this a date?’. When the woman told him that she really liked him, he said that he wouldn’t have come to dinner if he had considered this a date. The woman blew and threw him out.” I got up from the table and left my friend’s house and rushed home and started writing. Ten days later I had written WHAT HAPPENED WAS…”
-Tom Noonan “Having given up, I went to dinner at a friend’s house. During the meal I asked my friend how her brother was (whom I’d never met) and she said, “Oh, he’s such a jerk. This woman he works with asked him over for dinner. Well, he went and halfway through the meal he realized sensed romantic overtones and asked, ‘Is this a date?’. When the woman told him that she really liked him, he said that he wouldn’t have come to dinner if he had considered this a date. The woman blew and threw him out.” I got up from the table and left my friend’s house and rushed home and started writing. Ten days later I had written WHAT HAPPENED WAS…”

-Tom Noonan
1994 | Color | Sound | 91 minutes

presented on DVD

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Saturday, February 28th (10pm)

At What Price Film?

Posted in Uncategorized on February 19, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski

Originally, our movie screenings were free and we simply asked that patrons purchase a drink or two from our hosts, The Alchemist Theater and The Bayview Lounge. However, times are tough and we are now being asked to charge people $5 to see the films.

Wes and I see none of this money and we aren’t certain how we feel about this arrangement. The theater wants to use the money to help pay for a real projection screen, advertisement for the series, and other costs. We most certainly want to give back to the theater and lounge and thank them for their hospitality. At the same time we are concerned that this new deal may drive away, rather than encourage people to turn out for the films we show.

We’ll start charging $5 this weekend and simply see how it goes. Wes and I love cinema and $5 is certainly a cheap price to pay for entertainment of any sort, but we also know that the films we want to show are challenging works and $5 for an unknown film might seems like a risky investment.

Please let us know how you feel about this new scenario.

Walking with Alan Clarke

Posted in Screenings on February 15, 2009 by Ryan Sarnowski

Saturday, February 21th (10pm)
Sunday, February 22nd (8pm)

Transmutative Cinema presents two of Alan Clarke’s ‘walking’ films.


On Alan Clarke: An unsung hero of British cinema and a relatively unknown name here in the States, Alan Clarke was among the top British filmmakers of his generation; a group the includes Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, and Peter Watkins. For the better part of his career Clarke choose to make movies for television, but the small screen did not prevent him from creating powerful, personal and political films. The scope of Clarke’s work includes everything from drama to comedy, documentary to musical, but in his later days Clarke, with the help of the newly invented Steadicam, crafted a series of ‘walking’ films. The potential of this new device allowed Clarke to create a visual style that combined the documentary realism of handheld camerawork with the fluid, lyrical movements of dolly shots creating hyperreal scenes that hold the viewer trapped in a state of shared experience with the subjects.

Christine is a minimalist examination of the daily habits of a thirteen year old, suburban girl addicted to heroine. Clarke’s unwavering camera follows Christine from one fix to the next. Christine is a portrait of a teenage wasteland ruled by addiction, but free from the cinematic cliches that both glamorize and demonize drug use. Here drugs provide neither highs or lows, in fact they do nothing for the characters.

Mixed with humor and sadness, Road takes Jim Cartwright’s stageplay about a group of four desperate young  adults living in an rundown North England industrial town and places it in those very same streets. Clarke’s unflinching camera walks in lock-step with the actors Road as the deliver amazing monologues and soliloquies that depict a generation whose dreams have fallen victim to the bleak state of their environment.
It’s sad that Clarke is no longer with us and no longer able to make films. It’s even sadder that most of his work is unknown and unavailable on these shores. He is not without his admirers. Ray Winstone, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman have starred in Clarke films. Harmony Korine and Gus Vant Sant have paid homage to him in their own films. Now, you have see for yourself why Alan Clarke deserves more recognition.

1987 | Color | Sound | 52 minutes

1987 | Color | Sound | 67 minutes

presented on DVD
Director: Alan Clarke

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Saturday, February 21th (10pm)

Sunday, February 22nd (8pm)