Because of Mama

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Directing the Short Film: From the Director's Journal

    The only way to direct a film is to actually do it -- just as the only way to play shortstop is to suit up and position yourself between second and third on the diamond. While we can't give you that experience, we can tell you what it was like for the director of our film. And we can give you some ideas that might make you a more thoughtful director when the time comes for you to yell, "Action!"

    Accordingly, we offer the following excerpts translated from a journal that the director kept while filming on location in St. Petersburg, Russia. The shoot lasted fourteen days, and shooting was of course done out of sequence. Here we include only those excerpts from the first few days that illustrate how the director revised or refined his script while on the set.

  • Day One. In all my years growing up in Russia, I can't remember a March with no snow. I have in my mind scenes of Slava trudging though the snow-lined streets of Peter, loaded down by his cello. But here it is, the seventh of March, and no snow at all. I want winter - the brutal cold, and long hours of darkness. How am I going to telegraph all that to the audience without the snow? I could 1) truck in some snow from the forests, or 2) find a different solution. Believe it or not, I actually looked into the possibility of trucking in the snow. I need at least one hundred tons of snow, requiring anywhere from ten to fifteen trucks and costing about three thousand dollars. I'm not sure I can justify that expense to my investors. I took a long walk with Victor [the first assistant director] around the city, down Sedovaya Street to the Ykaterinensky Canal. There is still ice on the canal. Maybe we could do the outdoor sequences there? Canals are cinematic. Even better, it would be easy to keep other people off of the canal as we shoot. Slava would look much lonelier walking down the canal. I could also shoot him from above, magnifying the sense of how small he is and how overwhelmed he feels... I just hope he doesn't fall through the ice...
  • Day Two. Today was the first day of interior shooting. I was shooting the scene where the Kid has just found his father drunk in the elevator and discovers the mess he made in the dining room. He has one line of dialogue: "Mama's going to be very unhappy." The line was important: he had to bring all of his exhaustion and frustration and fear of his mother's disapproval to the screen. But somehow, he couldn't get the line. We did it six, seven, eight times, just that line, over and over, but he couldn't make the line match his feelings. It felt unnatural and stiff. Everyone was frustrated. The crew was thinking (I could feel it) that Valery didn't have it in him, and that the film wasn't going to work. Valery was losing confidence and started to cry. So I said, the hell with it, forget the line, just walk in the room, see the mess, and say what's in your heart. We roll camera; Valery enters, pauses, and then says, "Well, I guess I played some hockey." His delivery is wistful, tired, sad. It was perfect. Sometimes you just have to trust the actors to let you know when your writing doesn't work.
  • Day Three. After filming some of the apartment scenes yesterday, I started to worry: is the back story clear enough? Does the audience understand why Papa is so unhappy? Is there enough exposition? I need the audience to understand that Papa was a former professional hockey player for the great soviet team. It would be as a hockey player that he would "win" the love of Slava's mother. But when his hockey career ended, lots of things ended with it - including her love. And so he drinks sometimes, with random friends, in order to recapture a sense of the high he felt when he was a young man and the world belonged to him. But as I thought about the coverage I had, I wondered: will the audience "get" this? I have photographs of Papa in his hockey jersey on the walls of the Kid's room. But is this enough to signify a fall from glory? Maybe I should add a scene that would describe in very clear terms the essence of Papa's disappointment. And so I wrote a scene, between the floozy and the Kid, in which she tells the Kid not to judge his father too harshly, that nothing has gone right for him since he stopped playing hockey. (A later note: though the exposition seemed necessary on the set, it seemed redundant in the editing room. The scene with the floozy slowed the film down and really didn't provide any new or essential information. We left it out of the film's final cut. Which goes to show, once again, that films never stop being written, until you create the final print.)
  • Day Four. Today we shot the scenes in the Kid's bedroom. I wasn't happy with the set design. I was trying hard to recreate my bedroom from childhood, using my old toys and pillows and other props from the Soviet days. But the room we were filming in was bigger than the room of my childhood. I wasn't happy with the size. I wanted a room that would seem tighter, cozier, but also more restrictive. In this matter I wasn't going to be flexible. The room needed to seem small. So I had to create coverage that would make the room look tighter - for example, avoid wide shots and use long lenses, to give the sense of a more confined space...
  • Day Five. They predicted sun today, so I decided to set up for the final scene in the streetcar... This scene didn't exist in the script's first draft. But I was never happy with the final scene the way we wrote it there. The scene read well, but it was too literary. A great ending for a story, but not for a film. I needed a final image that would suggest the story's idea: though the boy has faced up to his feelings, life will go on as usual. Papa will continue to mess up, and Mama will continue to be disappointed. How could I come up with an image that would suggest all of these things? And so I came up with the idea of the cello riding off forgotten in the streetcar. I'm not entirely confident about the ending: it's a little bit slap stick and breaks with the tone of the rest of the film. It's not a perfect ending, but it's visual...


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