Monday, August 22, 2011

Moviemaker inspired by neighbor's fruits and vegetables

Frustrated physicist's wife (Natalie Partenheimer) with soldier (Thomas Crone).

If I am ever asked again about my influences as a moviemaker, I think I'll say, "The fruits and vegetables of my neighbor".

Last month, my next-door neighbor Mark Shaw knocked on our door and asked if we wanted a watermelon. I said, "Sure," and he walked home and came back with this wonderful fat little melon.

When you are making a feature-length movie on no budget, everything is a potential prop. When the movie you are making is about the making of the first atomic bomb, then everything fat and round looks like a visual pun on Fat Man, the fat round atomic bomb prototype assembled at Los Alamos.

I told Mark we should use the watermelon in our movie. I said "our" and "we" because, on top of being a thoughtful and generous neighbor, Mark is a film school grad who works hard as a volunteer on the Poetry Scores movie unit.

And indeed, the next day we were hard at work on location inside the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, a city club with interesting visuals and spaces, which we're allowed to transform into a movie lot on Sunday mornings. I brought the watermelon to the shoot and stared at it until I could figure out a way to use it.

We had George Malich on the shoot that day, playing military chaplain. I decided to have the priest stroll into the physicists' open-air lounge to give them the surprise gift of a watermelon (which just happens to look like the bomb they will later build). The physicists are out, but they have left paperwork lying about. From these notes the priest begins to gather, with horror, what the physicists are doing behind their shroud of secrecy.

We also had Thomas Crone on that shoot. Crone plays one of the soldiers whose main role is to constantly reinforce the idea that this is a closely guarded and carefully controlled secret military base. Our soldiers do a lot of standing around with a gun or running someone off at gunpoint. In this scene, the soldier discovers the priest alone in the physicists' lounge and runs him off at gunpoint. Figuring no one would be the wiser, the soldier then saunters off with the watermelon.

So, now we had a watermelon that looks like the Fat Man bomb in the hands of a soldier. One of the places we have stationed the soldier is by a big drum of water. Los Alamos -- in our movie, it's an abstracted and imaginary place, Lost Almost -- was a place of scarcity, wartime rationing, and high elevations where it took water forever to boil. My shooting script calls for the physicists' wives to really struggle in the kitchen, as the women did in real life.

We already had shot a scene where Crone guards a big water drum from which a physicist's wife (Barbara Manzara) draws a bucket of water, more or less at gunpoint. I also had her character devour a plum on a bench beneath a tree, to show that she was famished, to remind us that simple pleasures persist even in desperate times, and to furnish an opportunity for a lonely and frustrated military wife to experience some of the sensuality that is absent from the barren bomb shop.

I like to make movies using repetitions with differences, the classic structure of folktales. So I could see right away what we should do with that watermelon. The soldier should stash his purloined watermelon by his post at the water drum and use it to entice a famished physicist's wife he likes the looks of to wander off to a bench beneath a shade tree, where he pursues other forbidden fruit with her but is rejected.

That was the scene we had scheduled for yesterday, with Natalie Partenheimer playing the famished physicist's wife Crone's soldier likes the looks of.

A few days before we were set to shoot, I walked over to Mark Shaw's house to return a different prop. His father teaches high school science and had loaned us a gigantic wall chart of the periodic table of the elements, which we had put to good use in the movie's theoretical physics scene. While I was in their house, Mark's mother offered me some cucumbers she had brought back from her reservation (she is Native American and grew up on a res in Wisconsin). Native American cucumbers? How could I say no?

Before I had crossed our yards to go back home, I knew I now had more movie props.

Yesterday, after Natalie and Crone had arrived on location at Atomic Cowboy, I talked them through my concept of the scene. It was pretty simple. Soldier stashes watermelon by his guard post at the water drum. Famished physicist's wife comes to draw water. Soldier likes the looks of her. While she is dipping her bucket, the soldier grabs the watermelon to surprise her. He offers to take her for a snack, and she readily agrees. They sit close together on a crowded bench. The soldier begins to slice off pieces of watermelon, and as they eat, it becomes clear this means a whole lot more to the soldier than it does to the physicist's wife. Depending on how they played that uneasiness and tension, we would figure out how to end the scene.

We got through the stage business at the water drum just fine, but once we started shooting the watermelon scene, Crone was not looking like a very aggressive lecher. V. Elly Smith was shooting the scene on three cameras, and I was monitoring one of the cameras trained on Natalie's face. When I could see that Crone might not make the moves to justify her looking offended and disgusted, I talked her through some other emotions -- like wanting more than she was getting from the soldier. She did just fine with that.

When we got to the point where we needed to figure out how to wrap up the scene, Elly and I conferred. I asked what she had to work with from the camera she was operating. She said she didn't have what I needed, if I needed the soldier looking like a lecher who was using the watermelon as a ruse for sex. Immediately, I realized that I had asked for a cliche -- the rapacious soldier, the self-defending damsel -- and now the natural instincts of my amateur actors (Crone's shyness, Natalie's attraction to Crone) had given me an opportunity to shoot a much better, much more surprising scene.

So I said forget everything else I had said. It was Natalie's lonely and frustrated physicist's wife who wanted more out of this than just a juicy watermelon. When she realizes that the soldier is all gun and knife but no action, when she realizes she isn't going to get anything out of this other than some watermelon, then she decided she wants all of the watermelon. So just as the soldier had done to the priest, she takes the watermelon and runs.

The soldier is then left alone with his rifle, his knife ... and a cucumber! I had stashed one of Mark's mom's Native American cucumbers in the soldier's rucksack with his knife. I told Crone he had it and he was free to use it as a phallic symbol when the rapacious/resistance deal went down. Now that the soldier was left alone, with no rapacious/resistance sdcene, the cucumber was put to a very different use. The soldier hacks it down and eats the cucumber, a symbol of both masturbation and self-mutilation.

V. Elly Smith shoots soldier (Thomas Crone) self-mutilating a cucumber.

So much better, so much more interesting, so much more approriate to the themes of our movie -- atomic bomb as the ultimate act of self-destruction -- than what I thought I wanted. And I owe it all to the fruits and vegetables of my neighbor, and the instincts of amateur actors.

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