The year is 1991 and I’m a high school sophomore who eats, breathes and sleeps cinema. I live in Leonia, New Jersey, a small, sleepy, suburban town 15 miles from midtown Manhattan, and my heroes are George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Beyond the “three kings,” I’ve been exposed to a healthy amount of Spanish cinema (my parents are both from Spain) and I’m in the midst of falling under the spell of Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa. Adding to that, the films of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Tim Burton have officially taken hold. My teachers allow me to make movies instead of writing papers and, with my trusty dog Ebony by my side, I recruit most of my friends to star in my video epics. It all sounds pretty Capraesque, doesn’t it? I won’t lie, it really was. But I digress.
As I said, the year is 1991 and it’s a hot lazy summer night as I pop a videocassette into my trusty VCR. By the way, this machine would be my most prized possession if not for the more technologically advanced SONY DP-800 Laserdisc Player which rests next to it.
My television is on channel three and everything is set to go as the VCR whirs to life. Jagged patterns of video noise dance across the 19-inch screen and finally give way to an image of Francis Ford Coppola standing at a podium at the Cannes Film Festival. “My film isn’t about Vietnam… it is Vietnam. And the way we made it was very much the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane.” Thus begins Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse written and directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, and based on the documentary footage shot by Eleanor Coppola. For the next 19 minutes I sit gobsmacked, watching a spectacular documentary about one of the greatest films ever made.
I could go on and about Hearts of Darkness, which I still consider to be the best “making of” doc ever committed to film. Coppola’s artistic integrity and commitment to getting his story up on the screen are exactly the kind of inspiration a young moviemaker needs. In Coppola I saw a director who was concerned not just with the visuals of his film, but their meaning and ultimately what they would represent to the audience.
As the picture ended I was ready to take on the world. Moviemaking was a noble pursuit and there was no shame in believing movies could be more than just entertainment. My heroes were not only storytellers; they were artists. The poets, painters and playwrights of my generation, all rolled into one.
Right before the end credits, the directors of Hearts of Darkness cut back to a shot of Coppola. He talks of his hopes for the future of cinema and how with the advent of video technology, it’s possible that one day a fat girl in Ohio would make a beautiful and magical film with her Hi-8 camera that would reach a wide audience, and the so called “profession” of moviemaking would finally give way to the art of cinema. His words struck me like a lightning bolt… why not? Why couldn’t that fat girl make a wonderful film with her video camera? And, better yet, why couldn’t I be that fat girl?
Coppola’s dreams for that fat girl stuck with me during my years at NYU film school, where I was the first student allowed to shoot on an interesting new video format called Mini-DV (as long as I blew up the final project to the 35mm), and through today, as my new film, Severe Clear, is about to open theatrically nationwide.
Much like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, my film is a voyage into the heart of darkness and a meditation on one man’s journey into war. Interestingly, I can honestly boast that this film, to whatever degree possible, is Iraq, and it literally was made exactly how America fought the war. I can say this because the “fat girl” who shot this film is Marine Corp First Lieutenant Mike Scotti.
Much like with Hearts of Darkness, the footage used to make Severe Clear was never intended to be part of a feature-length motion picture. The images and sounds the audience will experience are exactly what Mike witnessed through the viewfinder of his own digital camera. That’s what makes Severe Clear so unique. It is as close to combat an audience can ever experience in a theater.
Growing up in Colts Neck, New Jersey (about two hours south of where I grew up), Mike Scotti never had any intention of becoming a moviemaker. His dream, from a very early age, was to serve his country as a United States Marine. Interestingly, certain war pictures profoundly affected both Mike and me in our youth. While Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the 4th of July and, of course Apocalypse Now inspired my love of cinema and my belief that movies could be socially relevant, for Mike, they reinforced his love of the Marine Corp. and served in many ways as a call to duty. Considering our reactions to these films were different on almost every level (can there ever truly be an “anti-war film”? That’s a whole other article) it’s interesting that Scotti and I would join forces 20-odd years later to create a film that is now being mentioned in the same breath as the very films that helped us on our respective journey.
Whether or not Severe Clear deserves to be in the company of those great films remains to be seen. However the fact that Mike’s home videos (shot under the most extreme conditions) can be digitally projected up on the big screen and audiences can accept them as a full-blown motion picture is a clear indication that the digital revolution has firmly taken hold across all spectrums of film production and exhibition.
From Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to that little fat girl in Ohio or a Marine on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom, digital technology is being used to bring personal stories to the big screen, stories that not long ago would have been impossible to tell. The world of digital cinema has freed moviemakers to bang up against only the limits of their imagination as storytellers.
As an independent moviemaker from New York City, what more could I ask for?
So, I keep plugging away, making my films and doing what it takes to make sure they reach an audience. Each one is a challenge and each has its own set of variables but one thing is constant, the drive and the hope that I can make a great film and become that fat girl. Hey, can’t a man dream?
Kristian Fraga is the writer-director of Severe Clear, a film based on the memoir of First Lieutenant Mike Scotti as well as video footage shot by him and other members of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines on the outset of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For more information, visit http://severeclearthemovie.com/wordpress.