Book Review: Independent Ed

RV-AP476_BKRVBu_J_20150129161927I first saw Edward Burns in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.  I, like a lot of people at the time, didn’t know who he was.  He just seemed like a cool guy, an Irish American (probably Catholic), with a Master’s Degree in wise-assery.  Not only was I unaware of him, but also his breakout Sundance success The Brothers McMullen and his followup She’s The One, both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.  In 2009 I discovered a few interviews with Burns on Youtube while I was in post-production on my first feature.

…filmmaking isn’t easy, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because it chose us. We didn’t choose it. Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This guy spoke my language!  He seemed so normal and down to earth.  An everyman who had a dream, chased it, and found success.  He had a lot of great things to say about low-budget filmmaking, something I didn’t realize he was known for.  After doing some digging into his career, I was hooked, and his movie Nice Guy Johnny which released a few months later sealed the deal.  I was an Ed Burns fan.  If you’re an indie filmmaker and you haven’t seen Nice Guy Johnny, I suggest you pick up a copy on DVD.  The DVD commentary is informative, inspiring, and for some of you indie newcomers, it could be revelatory.

His new book Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life, is a must read for all indie-filmmakers.  It chronicles Burns journey through the Hollywood rollercoaster.  For most fans of his work, the book offers little new information, but that’s not a strike against it.  I’ve heard various versions of the stories in the book from different interviews and articles over the years, but not the whole story, and certainly not in order.  It’s a swift and easy read.  You can’t help but love the guy as he talks about how determined but clueless he was about the Hollywood process.  Being able to track his success and failure helps give a wakeup call to those interested in the movie business.  Burns is a guy who’s been through the ringer more than once, but he’s never given up.  His skills have improved and evolved, and I can identify with his ups and downs.

A couple thoughts for the first-time filmmaker: If you allow yourself to get crippled by the possibility of failure, you’re going to rob yourself of a lot of great experiences.”

The transition of Burns’ career from theatrical to digital is especially interesting.  I loved reading about Purple Violets and how it became the first movie to premiere exclusively on iTunes.  You get little glimpses at the financial backend of some of his movies, which is nice to see.  VOD gave Edward Burns’ career new life, and he was one of the first guys on the indie side to really dive in and make it his own.  His “lets just do it” attitude is enough to make anybody feel empowered.  Newlyweds, shot on a 5D for $9000 on the streets of NY (whenever cast and crew were available), was a massive success on VOD.  Although Edward Burns is…well…Edward Burns…it sure makes you feel dumb for making excuses about why you can’t make movies.  For years, this guy has done whatever it takes to tell his story.  His determination is undeniable, and he’s not some guy who had it all given to him.  He started at the bottom.

Nobody makes a film alone. Without the support of those two men, my parents, and the cast and crew who were willing to work for free, I don’t have this story to tell.”

The last section of the book talks about how Burns’ new show Public Morals became a series on TNT.  This was very informative for me.  It gives you a glimpse at how difficult it is to get a show on the air, even when you have the support of Steven Spielberg.  For years I’ve heard him say how bad he’s wanted to make a NY cop movie set in the 1960s and 70s, a job and time period his father knew all about.  Now he finally has his chance.  It’s very clear as you finish the book how influential Burns’ father was on his life and career.  He was there to support, encourage, and smack him upside the head if need be.  You’ll see Burns career come full circle as he describes the day his father and Steven Spielberg were on-set of the show.  Thinking about it now, I can’t help but smile.  Burns is all class, a guy who acknowledges just how lucky he was/is to be doing something he loves.  Looking to give your creative life a kick up the backside?  Give this a look.

Filmmaker Robert Bresson said it best: ‘Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never be seen.’ That’s what I’ve been going for since day one and that’s why, after all these ups and downs and highs and lows, I’m still at it.”

Whiplash: Movie Review

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I had been waiting to see Whiplash ever since the reviews started pouring in.  Here was a movie right up my alley!  I love intense films between a small number of characters, because you get to spend a lot of time with them and dive deep into their psyche.  Well, nothing could prepare me for what I saw a few nights ago.  I saw about 270 films this year, and a number of TV shows start to finish.  Whiplash had the sort of finesse, quality, and precision a guy like me dreams about.  It’s without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.  This review might seem a bit gushing, but I really don’t know how else to convey my experience.  I sat till the lights came up when it was over, then drove home about 40 miles with the radio off in silence.  I had to think.  The film had rocked me, and I related to the story on such a deep rooted level that it caused a sort of numbness.  How often do we get a movie this good?

Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer who, at the start of the film, is accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States. He begins dating Nicole, a college student working at a cinema frequented by Andrew and his father. He aspires to become one of the drummer “greats”, like Buddy Rich. With many of his classmates knowing that an infamous Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is looking for a new drum alternate, Neiman successfully auditions for him and joins his class.  The story goes on to develop the teacher/student relationship between Andrew and Terence, an emotional powder-keg set to detonate at any moment.

Beyond the story and characters, what really knocked me out in the film was something I mentioned up top: PRECISION.  This film is incredibly precise.  For a film shot in 19 days and edited in 9 weeks, it’s a miracle of editing.  Every beat of the film feels perfectly crafted.  It may sound hamfisted to say the film is “pitch perfect” or “hits every note,” but it’s a gem.  I really hope it gets an Oscar Nomination for Best Editing.  It would take me forever to sit down and craft a game-plan to even attempt some of the sequences in the movie.  For a guy so young, Damien Chazelle shows a remarkable amount of craftsmanship.  It’s not surprising he’s being tapped for multiple projects going forward.  His DP Sharone Meir lenses the film with a beautiful pallet, helping Damien fully realize his vision.  The intense color in the film, particularly the warm tones and striking contrast lend to the film’s intensity.

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If J.K. Simmons doesn’t grab an Oscar this year I will be very disappointed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance as good as Terence Fletcher.  The very first scene of the film tells us everything we need to know about him.  J.K. takes that instrument of his and knocks you out in a crescendo of vulgarity that scares you one moment and makes you laugh the next.  He was such a fascinating character to watch.  He (the character) is clearly great at what he does, but his abusive behavior with his students, his demeanor, and other aspects of how he carries himself makes you unsure of his intentions.  Is this guy just a jerk?  Does he relish it?  He strives for perfection, for greatness in his students, but his methods are questionable.  The film is basically a giant guessing game, with you almost wanting him to push his students and Andrew’s character at times, and in other moments you want to tackle him in frustration.  Like any great film, each new scene reveals something new about his character, and keeps the guessing game going.  What J.K. does so well is ride that line of anger and sympathy.  I’ve always found him to be extremely likable as an actor, and he brings a lot of weight to the role of Terence.  There’s a moment where he arrives in class to announce one of his former students is dead.  He is emotional, sincere, and clearly shaken.  It’s in those moments that he becomes something much more than a man who yells.  This is what a great antagonist looks like.  It would be so easy to make his character a brute who screams and yells profanities with no humanity.  In other hands, he’d be just another one-dimensional bad guy, square and boring, but Writer/Director Damien Chazelle rounds out his character on the page and J.K. gives him emotional weight.

Andrew Neiman played by Miles Teller is equally fascinating.  I’ve been watching Teller for a few years now, and he’s A-list talent all the way.  The upcoming Oscar race will likely secure that, when he gets his Nomination.  If he doesn’t, like Simmons, I’ll be hugely disappointed.  It would be fantastic if he won.  Teller plays the role of Andrew with as much intensity as Simmons, but his is more internal.  The most incredible scenes are those with him alone, drumming.  His intense desire for greatness and the brooding rivalry with Terrance portrays what might be the finest example of the artist’s struggle ever put on screen.  You wince while Andrew practices with so much rage that blood pours from his finger tips and hands.  He plays through the pain before finally dipping his hands into jugs of ice water.  He goes through one bandage after another for the cuts and blisters that constantly develop, worsen, and break open.  The film is a literal portrayal of the artist’s struggle as well as a powerful metaphor.

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What does it take to be truly great?  I can’t go on about the story without spoiling the film, but as a filmmaker, and someone who has always been artistic, I could understand the pain and the anguish Andrew was going through.  I’ve had my own days with bloodied hands, just different context.  I’ve thrown things, screamed obscenities, and boiled with rage, all for the sake of trying to create something.  The struggle is real, and the desire to be truly great at something without the blood, sweat, and tears, means little.  You’ll either bleed to reach for that greatness or you won’t.  Desire isn’t enough.  As Terence says to Miles at one point, “There are no two words in the english language more harmful than good job.”  While some may scoff at the sentiment, we live in a culture dominated more and more by the acceptance of mediocrity, school activities where everyone gets a medal to not cause “emotional distress,” and other sorts of conditioning.  Our military pushes our troops farther than they think they can go, not by holding their hand and giving them a hug, but through a level of intensity that is extraordinary.  To be truly great at something always requires more than you expect to give, and everyone needs someone in their life who’s willing to push them to the limit, and sometimes far over it.  Greatness is something few people achieve.  The question that Whiplash asks is: How bad do you want it?