In late November of 2008, I found out that Adam, the film I’d spent most of the past two years and parts of the previous four writing and directing, had been accepted into the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Of course I felt joyfully validated for being accepted into the “Sundance Club,” but the reality of what it meant didn’t sink in until we arrived at the Eccles Theatre for our premiere.
Up until that time, the largest screening of Adam had been for an audience of six friends; the sold-out Eccles seated more than 1,100. Which is when it struck me: Getting into Sundance meant I was going to have to show the movie to people.
Although I’m still a relative newcomer to making movies, I have been a theater director for more than 25 years, so it wasn’t that showing my work was a new experience. Watching the theater lobby fill up, I felt the familiar love/hate response that early audiences have always inspired in me.
Writing and/or directing—for film or theater—means spending weeks, months and sometimes years imagining this audience; creating or interpreting a story for them and figuring out how to give them the information necessary to appreciate it; then working for hundreds or thousands of hours with actors, producers and other collaborators in intimate (often anxiety-provoking and personally-revealing) ways to clarify it and translate it from the page. All of this is an attempt to connect to these mysterious beings with whom I devoutly believe I have just enough in common to exchange an emotionally comprehensible story.
It is an act of faith not dissimilar to Adam and Beth’s continuous effort to create a relationship in the movie.
And on this day I see them—hundreds of strangers milling about the Eccles lobby, waiting to judge the product. Of course, they have that right. But nonetheless, the sight of them is a shock.
These people—with whom I’ve been having this long, complicated, imaginary relationship—seem to have no sense of the process that got us to this point. They have no idea how much better this version is than the last. They don’t even look like the wise, loving, sensitive and understanding imaginary people I’ve been telling the story to all this time.
They just look like normal people, coming to watch a movie. They look like people who are possibly ready to absorb this little story of less than two hours into their massive, complex and challenging lives, but just as likely to be distracted by the weather, a bad mood, the memory of a horrible meal or the anticipation of a good one.
In short, the audience has transformed from my imagined moviemaking partners into intruders. They are invaders of a private world that I have built with the actors, crew and producers. And not only are they intruding invaders, but they have final say over the worth and success of the entire project! (Well, the success part anyway…)
I have had the privilege to know and work with a few people in my life who I believe are actual artistic geniuses. I’ve seen some of what I consider to be their best works unceremoniously dismissed, derided and shut down. This has happened enough times for me to know that the beauty and value of one’s work is not and cannot be dependent on its reception in the marketplace.
One of these “geniuses” was once enjoying the massive success of a project when I asked him how it felt. He admitted he was gratified by the response, but was quick to add that he’d been just as taken with his previous two works, which had been commercial and critical failures. “Sometimes what interests me interests a lot of other people,” he shrugged, masking the remembered hurt and disappointment of those experiences. “And sometimes it doesn’t.”
I have always prided myself on having a staunchly Type B personality; I will never overwhelm anyone with an outward demonstration of passion for my work. I’ve never been a very good salesman, but I have always had the perseverance and resilience to continue, however imperfectly, to investigate through storytelling that which deeply interests me.
So when the lights darkened at the first screening of Adam and my fear of rejection, my defensive and childish contempt for humanity in general and my frail, desperate desire for acceptance and understanding wrestled for control of my psyche, there was a faint, more “adult” voice in the tumult. Quietly, it made the point that, in making Adam, I’d had an enlightening and profoundly satisfying experience. I’ve had the time and support to make it pretty close to what I meant. So, no matter what happened in this afternoon screening, that was enough.
But then, this time, there was all that icing…
About 10 minutes in, through laughter and appreciative sighs, it became clear that the audience was responding to Adam; that they were going along for the ride and having the experience that we’d hoped to convey. When I was introduced at the end and the crowd of intruders stood in appreciation and applauded, I thought, ‘Whoa. Take a moment and drink this in for all the times you’d hoped to make this connection and failed in the past, and for all the times you’ll fail in the future. Take this in, because this is as good as it gets.’
People have asked me to compare directing film to directing theater. Usually, they’re talking about technique or specific skill sets. But the most remarkable thing about Adam, compared to the 60 or 70 theater productions I’ve directed, is that it still exists. It can and apparently will (thanks to Fox Searchlight and a whole new group of colleagues) be seen by people after myself, the intruders in the Eccles and all the rest of us who made it have long moved on.
Theater is a great metaphor for life in that you direct a production, it runs for a while and then it’s gone except for the script, the memory of those who saw it and (god help us) the reviews. What a privilege it is to make a movie. What a great joy and honor to get to tell a story in a form that will survive into the foreseeable future.
Of course, people have been leaving artistic impressions and handing down stories for all of recorded human history. But coming fairly recently to film, and in middle age, I hope it’s not too presumptuous to remind my fellow moviemakers of the extraordinary venture in which we are engaged. We are, after all, the cave painters of the 21st century. MM
Fox Searchlight will release Adam on July 29, 2009.
The Making of Adam
Adam was privately financed for less than $1 million. Pre-production was a very rushed six weeks. For example, production started while we were still missing—or had not locked—more than 15 locations. This made for many days of combined shooting and location scouting (not to mention more than a few frayed nerves).
To my best recollection, the shooting schedule was 26 days altogether. With a few days before and after Thanksgiving, three six-day weeks, the last of which extended to a seventh day because of actor and crew availability.
The last scene of the film was shot twice: The first time, for one day, in Sierra Madre, California. After Sundance, with Fox Searchlight’s support, we re-shot the ending at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the Angeles National Forest.
Adam was shot on an Arriflex D-20 camera recording directly to an S.two hard drive system. (As far as I know, it was the first feature film to use this system in North America.)
Tidbit: Raccoons, which were needed for a Central Park scene, were filmed in Toronto during post-production. Three days before the scene was to be shot, New York state instituted a raccoon transportation moratorium because of a rabies outbreak. Ironically, during the shoot night, our crew was literally surrounded by curious—but un-photographable—native New York raccoons.