The old saying is “Write what you know.” But I know absolutely nothing about the world that my movie One More Time is set in.
I don’t come from a show-business family; I don’t have any sisters; my relationship with my own family members is nothing like this one. It’s pure imagination. But in the end it is a film about how the members of a family relate to each other, and that’s something that nearly all of us instinctively know.
There is perhaps no higher praise for a movie than to have the audience walk out of the theater saying, “That felt real.” At the same time, film, by its very nature, tends to exaggerate and dramatize, and we accept that—to a point. In fact, we generally want movies to give us a heightened reality, one that elides the boring and inconvenient parts of actual life. Real trial lawyers, for example, even the very best, are rarely as eloquent or dramatic as the stars of legal thrillers. Elegant compression of time, clever sequencing of events, and the careful withholding and revealing of information are the very essence of storytelling. So the trick is to find the balance between what “feels real” and an artful representation of something more compelling than real life.
Often what we admire as realism in film is really just a reflection of previous movies that “felt real,” especially when it portrays something for which we have no first-person experience. Back in the ’90s, an old army buddy of mine was an advisor on a World War II film that called for an actor to use a flamethrower. The actor came to my friend, Rick, and asked him how to do the scene. Rick scoffed, saying, “I never even saw a flamethrower in my whole military career. But go rent The Deer Hunter; there’s a great scene in it where De Niro uses a flamethrower.” So the actor did that, and came back the next day raving. When it was time for him to do his scene, he simply mimicked what De Niro had done. When the movie came out, the critics praised its “realism” and singled out the flamethrower scene. None of those critics, to my knowledge, had stormed Japanese pillboxes on Okinawa, and so could only gauge the supposed realism of this new film against previous movies that felt like realistic depictions of war. Hence art imitated art, giving the illusion of life.
Give Character Stereotypes Surprising Depth
In One More Time I wanted to create a family that felt like a real family, where everyone had flaws and foibles and complexity, as opposed to just being familiar “types.” I didn’t want any of the characters to be cardboard cutouts that were entirely heroic or entirely villainous, and I didn’t want to tie plot strands up into neat, wish-fulfillment bows. I wanted the people onscreen and the interactions between them to be messy and unpredictable, yet still plausible. I don’t think there’s a magic formula for doing that, and I don’t know that I succeeded, but that was my objective. (Well, I doubt that anyone sets out to make predictable, flat characters.)
The character of Corinne (played by Kelli Garner), for example, presented both a challenge and an opportunity. She is a familiar type—the straight arrow, somewhat uptight sister of the main character—so she could easily slip into caricature. My hope was to turn that risk to our advantage through a kind of jiu-jitsu: to present Corinne initially as this two-dimensional stereotype, so that the audience might quickly assume they had her pegged… then, having lulled them into that false presumption of who that character is, I wanted to surprise them by revealing unexpected layers of vulnerability and hurt in Corinne, and elicit unforeseen sympathy for her. Otherwise, she might easily have functioned as nothing more than a thinly drawn foil for the two main characters, her sister (Amber Heard) and her father (Christopher Walken). Whether that strategy worked I can’t say, but that was the plan.
Likewise, this family has a live-in housekeeper named Lourdes (played by Sandra Berrios). I deliberately put her in the background of almost every scene early in the movie, where she is a silent presence attending to the needs of this deeply narcissistic, highly privileged show-business family. The family has intimate conversations in front of her as if she isn’t even there, which is a kind of shocking disregard for her as a real person in her own right. One might suspect that, if pressed, the Lombards might even say, “Lourdes is one of the family!” But the fact is, they treat her more like a piece of furniture.
As with Corinne, I tried to play on that presumption, expecting the audience to treat Lourdes as invisibly as the family does, creating an opening for a couple of moments where we learn things about Lourdes that—ideally—come with a bracing little shock…. a reminder that, “Oh, that’s a real person, with a whole backstory and life of her own,” not just a phantom-like presence that serves the meals and cleans the dishes.
Upend Conventions of Stage Dialogue
This attempt to present a realistic portrait of the relationship between the characters is reflected in the sound of the film more than almost any other aspect. Like many filmgoers, I am an admirer of Robert Altman’s dense, overlapping sound design. The clean dialogue that is the norm in TV and movies and on stage is simply not the way people talk in real life, although we have become accustomed and conditioned to it, and accept it as part of artistic license. But I deliberately wanted to avoid that and try to emulate the chaotic, competing dialogue of Altman’s work.
It’s much harder than it looks, in every way: harder to write, harder to stage, and harder to edit. It’s hard also for actors, who are trained not to step on each other’s lines. (Though once they are encouraged to do it, and take a few runs at it, they usually embrace it with enthusiasm. Most actors do like to speak.)
I wanted the dialogue not only to overlap and fight with itself, but also to veer off into tangents, which is another thing that is usually avoided in movies. Writers and editors are trained to stay on point, to cut away any “fat” that is not advancing the narrative, and producers are adept at zeroing in on what they think of as extraneous dialogue and removing it. There is some merit in that. But there is also a lot to be said for the naturalism of conversations that do not proceed in a straight line, but rather twist and turn and go off topic, sometimes never to return, just as they tend to do in real life.
In that regard, the dinner table scenes in One More Time in particular were deceptively hard to plan, film, and edit in order to create what I hope is a facsimile of real family-dinner-table conversation. The small pleasures of conversational minutiae is something that audiences (at least, some audiences) respond to, from Barry Levinson’s groundbreaking Diner to the chatty criminals of Reservoir Dogs (which spawned a million pale imitators, to the point of burning out the genre) to Seinfeld—the famous “show about nothing”—to mumblecore, which itself harkens back to a less plot-driven kind of European cinema. So to me, Cosmo Kramer is the bastard lovechild of Godard and Antonioni.
Define “Truth” in Cinematography
One area where I deliberately went away from the prevailing style of faux realism was in the camerawork. My cinematographer Anne Etheridge and I purposely chose a mostly static, tripod mounted look for the camera. This is highly unfashionable these days and considered rather staid. But we had a reason.
My background is in documentary. Where once the “D-word” was anathema to audiences who carried bad memories of the eat-your-vegetables docs they were forced to endure in school, over the past 20 or 30 years documentaries have exploded in popularity, as the public came to understand that nonfiction films can be as gripping and as entertaining as “real movies.” (Of course, the notion of documentary as objective reality is itself an illusion. Documentaries are constructed stories just as much as fiction films, even if they are constructed from nonfiction elements. Indeed, one could argue that they are more slippery in that regard because of the presumption of “truth” on the part of much of the audience. No less a documentary eminence than the justly revered Fred Wiseman modestly refers to his films as “reality fictions.”)
Fiction film quickly seized on this desirable aspect of documentary and stole it, co-opting the grammar of documentary because it connotes “truth.” The deliberately shaky handheld camera in particular became shorthand for cinematic realism, to the point where it has become cliché. (Real handheld observational camerawork can usually be distinguished from fictional imitators, which are often betrayed by extraneous camera moves for their own sake, and movements that anticipate dialogue and action in a way that is impossible in real cinéma vérité.)
Ironically, cinematography that constantly calls attention to itself, reminding us that a camera is present—with an intelligence behind it—capturing the action, is typically considered realer than an invisible, unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style that by its nature makes the audience forget they are watching a movie. MM
One More Time opens in theaters and On Demand April 8, 2016, courtesy of Starz Digital.