Friday, January 16, 2009

The Film Poster

[ NOTE: I began using this Blogspot site after abandoning a my previous website,, due to the terrible service and design interface provided by the web host service I'd subscribed to. Now that has officially been removed from the internet, I'm going to begin a series of reposts so that the items I wrote for that site remain available online. This first one was originally posted on January 16, 2007. ]

The Film Poster

Film school was drawing to a close. I had all the credits I needed. I had earned some of the best grades of my academic career, even winning a spot on the Dean's List. (I'm told that's a good thing, even though it sounded like the dude put a hit on me.) I and five other graduating seniors were putting the final touches on our senior thesis films. (There was also a video project due to screen that year, the nature of which deserves its own separate story.)

The Senior Film course was separated into two semesters. The first semester was pre-production and principle photography. The second semester was post-production and additional photography. Those were the "rules." And although rules are made to be broken, one of my fellow seniors took things a little too far. I'll call him "S." There are two reasons for this. One, I actually kinda liked the guy, and don't want to tarnish his name all across the Internet. And two, I'm a coward. But mostly for the first reason.

I met S shortly after beginning film school. In one of our first classes together, he stopped me and asked about the shirt I was wearing. It was a sort-of-maroon t-shirt with pale beige lettering and some weird dragon-esque design. I had received the shirt complimentarily when I attended the International Thespian Society's Pennsylvania state competition during my senior year of high school. S had been there too. In fact, he had performed the lead role in the opening night's play. I needed little reminding. It was a funny and touching show, tightly directed and performed. The moment he reminded me of that play, I could visualize him in it. It was nice to meet him.

We didn't really become friends after that. Nor did we become enemies. We simply became aware of each other. Sometimes we would talk before or after class. Sometimes we would work together on in-class assignments. But we made no effort to hang out outside of classes, and were both perfectly fine with that. He had his own social circle, and I had mine (mostly journalism and mass communications students). Besides, he lived off campus, which was an inconvenience.

The prerequisites for Senior Film were Film Production courses I though IV. Needless to say, you start out easy in Film I, and continuously build through Film IV. During each semester, you do ordinary book learning, and you experiment with some shooting. The final project for each class is a rough film, maybe five minutes long, demonstrating all the knowledge you've acquired thus far. Ideally, by Senior Film, you know everything necessary to go out and create your biggest and best project to date. I mean, obviously you're still learning. (As last night's Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe recipient Clint Eastwood said, he's 76 and still considers himself a student.) But you should know enough about how to put a small film together, and you need to prove it during Senior Film.

S and I were in the same Film IV section. From day one, S already had his master plan. As soon as classes got underway, he made a request of the teacher. Instead of making a completed project for his Film IV final, he wanted to use his resources from Film IV to begin shooting his Senior Film project. Instead of showing a complete short as his final, he would show rough footage for his senior film.

The teacher was hesitant. That just wasn't the way it worked. Part of the learning process in Senior Film is to have your project analyzed every step of the way, scrutinized the way studio executives might one day scrutinize the work you do for them. Since S didn't have approval for his intended senior film script, the whole thing could theoretically be rejected, leaving S, well, s-out-of-luck.

But of course, that's not the way it went. I'll never know what strings were pulled outside of class. All I know is, S was given permission to begin shooting his Senior Film project while he was still in Film IV.

Clearly, that's not fair. But then again, who said things are fair? Part of me admired S's ambition, his ability to plan so far ahead, his dedication to seeing the film through and doing it his way. But the other part of me was pissed. The rest of us only had two semesters to work on our senior films. By starting his film in the spring semester of our junior year, S was giving himself three semesters, plus the summer break in between. That's almost a year and a half! Would he be graded on some sort of downward curve for this? Doubtful. By the time the rest of us were entering pre-production in our Senior Film classes -- still in the scripting phase -- S would already be in his ninth month of shooting. Again, very unfair.

The other issue was money. He had quite a bit more of it than the rest of us. And it showed. Although I certainly never saw his budget or receipts, it was easy to estimate how much S was blowing on film stock/speed/lens tests. He was shooting 15 takes of every camera set-up. He was ordering professional dailies, telecine transfer and all. These were luxuries the rest of us couldn't afford. I could barely afford to shoot and process three takes of each set-up.

I know, I know. Cry me a river, right? Some of this may sound petty. But you have to understanding that, when it comes to filmmaking, the budget, sadly, is everything. Obviously, a certain amount of talent and skill can be helpful. But assuming that most people who go through film school have a marginal amount of each, the two most important remaining ingredients are money and time. The more you have of each, the better film you'll be able to make. And, of course, the more you have of the former, the more you can spare of the latter. We've all heard the expression "time is money." That's the literal truth in filmmaking. Every second that passes is money being spent. Even on ultra-no-budget films.

S seemed to have an unlimited amount of money to pour into his film. That money bought him as much time and as many takes as he wanted. And although I doubt that S went so far as to bribe anybody, there's no question that his impressive financial standing was an influential factor in allowing him to bend the rules so easily.

Stories began filtering in from S's shoot. He had a trained dog that could act vicious and pretend to bite people. He closed down a bar at night to shoot a scene. He had a section of downtown Pittsburgh streets shut down to shoot a scene. Can you imagine? Shutting down a street to shoot a film involves paying off-duty police to monitor the traffic. Paying for the massive batteries and lights it takes to shoot an outdoor scene at night. Paying for permits. These things may be routine for a Hollywood production -- or even a low-budget indie -- but they are not things you do on a student budget.

I guess the thing that got to me the most about this whole thing was why he was bothering with film school at all. He apparently had the resources to do whatever he wanted to do. While film school is theoretically for learning, the truth is that there's nothing they'll teach you in school that you can't read in the books available at any library. The best part of film school is the access you're given to equipment that would otherwise be too expensive for most people to lease from any sort of equipment house. S obviously had the budget to lease whatever he damn well pleased. He wasn't shooting a student film; he was shooting an indie film. So why was he going through the motions of being in school?

One night, I went up the street to grab some Subway. When I walked back into the dorm building, I found myself in the middle of S's shoot. He had roped off a whole giant section of the lobby, and had hauled in more massive lights and generators that certainly didn't come from the film school rental locker.

"Hey, Joe," S said when he saw me. "Want to pitch in? We can always use more help."

What, and let the lettuce on my sub get withered and brown?

"You can come to the wrap party!"

Sorry, but I was busy that night.

"No problem. Hey, you can come to the wrap party anyway. It's gonna be a blast. I'll let you know when it's happening."

Ah, the wrap party. I didn't go, but I heard stories. Held at the estate of S's parents, the party was said to have been fully catered, with a complete and unlimited bar. The cast and crew, it turns out, numbered several dozen, and all were able to eat and drink well past their fill.

Meanwhile, the entire cast and crew of my movie had been, uh, I think ten people. And I could barely afford to buy them all pizza. THAT is student filmmaking, my friends.

The date for the senior screening was set. The graduating Senior Film students got busy self-promoting, telling everyone they ran into to come to the Harris Theater for the free show. But S, of course, took his self-promotion to a higher level. He created posters.

Now, these weren't corner store cardboard-and-construction-paper, running-for-class-president posters. S had gone to a professional company, and had glossy, professionally-designed one-sheets made up to promote his film. They started appearing all over campus, hung in every key visible place.

One night, while watching some TV alone in my dorm room (a favorite pastime during college), there was a knock on my door. As quickly as I opened the door, one of my mass communications friends, Jes, breezed into the room. She was bearing a gift. It was one of S's posters.

"I was thinking you could tear it up, or something like that," Jes said brightly. She couldn't contain her smile. She was preparing for me to take out all my rage on this symbol of so much angst.

I held the poster in my hands, and took a long look at it. It was really nice. Some sort of motion-blurred photograph of a man -- undoubtedly S himself -- standing in a motion-blurred field. It was bleak but energetic. Interesting and sad. Superimposed across the bottom were cast and crew credits, like you'd see on any real movie poster. And, of course, "A Film by S" scrolled across the top. If it wasn't quite Hollywood-grade quality, it was at least film-festival-grade; which was undoubtedly the intended destination for this film.

"I don't know if I should do that," I told Jes.

"I just thought it would be funny," she said.

"It seems a little too mean, I think."

"Now I feel bad," she said.

I apologized. We talked a little more about what I should do with the poster. I asked where she got it, in case I wanted to put it back on the wall. Eventually, Jes left. I was alone with my new burden.

I knew right away that I couldn't put it back on the wall. I'm the type of guy who always gets caught. If I step even slightly out of line, I'm busted. So, assuming I tried to do the "right thing" by re-hanging the poster, someone would surely catch me screwing with it, assume the worst, and God only knows what the fallout would be. So I folded up the poster and hid it in my dorm room closet, never to be seen by another soul. Just as well. No doubt S had a large box full of posters, and he could easily replace the missing one.

The day of the screenings, things were hectic. Parents and friends came from out of town to see the movies. Open to the public, the screening also brought in a surprising number of random people off the street. The theater was well past capacity. For my part, my parents, sister, and girlfriend came to town. My best friend, Paul, cleared his work schedule so he could be there. Several of my journalism and mass communications friends came up from the college.

The first movie played. S was in it. But it wasn't his film. One of the other filmmakers had brought S in strictly as an actor for his project. S was, after all, more than just a director. He was a thespian.

Another movie or two played, then came another one with S in it. Someone else had utilized S's acting skills.

My movie played, and received a middling response. Which is fine. By the time my movie played, we were past the two hour mark in the evening's program. The theater was cramped and overheated; people were tired and cranky. As one friend would later say, "Everyone was pretty S-ed out at that point."

S's movie was the last one shown (if you don't count the awful video project tacked on at the end). So, how was it?

Very, very well-crafted. Of course! How could it not be? The guy had all the time and money in the world. From the very first frame, the audience knew it was in a whole different league. His titles were done by an optical effects company. His lighting was the clearest and most professional of the bunch. His film was the longest, had the largest cast, had the most expansive scope. It didn't belong at all.

I guess you could say the movie was so good, it deserved its own separate screening. And, never fear, because that's exactly what it got. After its premiere at the senior film showcase, S rented out a screen at the Loew's Waterfront multiplex. Now, I'm not sure what it would cost to buy out a screening room for a day from a corporate theater chain; but I'm willing to bet it's several times more expensive than the combined budgets of all the other senior films that year.

Things quieted down after the senior showcase. Classes were basically done for me, and all I had left to do was wait out the remainder of the semester. I began tearing down my room, and packing up all my things. That's when I found the poster again.

What was I supposed to do with this thing? I couldn't exactly find S and give it back to him. He probably wouldn't even care to have it at this point (though he might be interested in hearing me explain why I had it).

So I finally did what Jes had wanted me to do all along, but without the rage or vengeance or humor. I took out a pocket knife that Paul had given me a year or so ago, when he and his then-girlfriend were going through a knife collecting phase. Calmly and patiently, I slid the knife down the middle of the poster. Then I put the two pieces together, and took another slice straight down the middle. Jes wasn't there to see it, but I like to imagine that some metaphysical sense of justice and balance reached her at that moment.

The poster in four pieces, I checked the hallway to make sure no one was around. The floor quiet and deserted, I safely rushed to the trash bin and pushed the poster pieces to the bottom.

I would later find out that, since his film had been made using "educational equipment," S was never allowed to make any money from it. He couldn't sell it to one of those short-films-DVD compilations, nor to any other type of distributor. All he could ever do is let people see it for free. I don't consider this any sort of vindication or last laugh. S probably knew this all along, and poured all the money into the film anyway so that he could use it as a calling card for prospective employers, or something like that.

If that was his plan, I have no idea of knowing whether it worked or not. For the life of me, I cannot remember S's last name. And his first name is, as you might guess, far too common to Google or IMDb on its own. Even a web search for past International Thespian Society programs turns up nothing.

Not that I'm a stalker, or even remotely obsessing over him. It's just that I recently remembered the incident with the film poster, and I was curious to know what S might be up to these days. As I mentioned, he was a pretty nice guy. And I can't deny that he did a good job on his senior film. It would be interesting to see if he's carved out a decent career for himself by now. I'd be genuinely happy for him if I found out he had become successful.

After all, he might be able to hook me up with a cool job.