It always seems that just when it’s most important to post, most interesting, there is least time for it. Blog posting for me, like journalling, is nearly always frustratingly anticipatory or reflective, losing the amazing energy of the “now” of filmmaking. Rather quietly, and without fanfare for the Burning Heart Productions team, the first fruit of our years-long effort premiered twice in the last few weeks.
The first time, by invitation of Evan Rosa, for several thousand college students attending the Torrey Conference. It was the launch event for the Center for Christian Thought’s new series on Thoughtful Films. It was our privilege to be there, and to hear the rich and potent responses from panelists and tweeting audience members that night.
Then we had the singular privilege of producing the Inauguration Eve program for the new president of Fuller Seminary (and friend) Mark Labberton. Among many others, we shared that stage with our guests the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers and guest performers Aaron Paul Ballard, Patrick Duff, Cynthia Glass, and Matt Tinken (seen here, at rehearsal).
That evening, where we showed “None: The Prayer of the Mournful Songwriter,” was a great privilege, and far more satisfying than had it been a more conventional film premiere.
There have been waves of responses from both events, that continue to sift into our email inboxes or onto our facebook timelines. Among my favorites is a reaction from Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, whom I asked, “did you like the film?” He responded, “I don’t think I can respond to the word ‘like.’ I am still trying to figure out what you have done to me.” We received many emails, delving deeply into the subjects and emotions stirred, many saying that conversations are still going on about it, and many who articulated our dream response—”that story was my story.”
Among the latter was friend Matt Lumpkin, who, among other things, said the experience made him reflect on a poem he’d written recently. I include it here, with his kind permission, in the anticipation that talk about these themes of time, lament, hope and praying the hours, will continue.
I see a great wave of life washing over a thousand generations
Shimmering through their thoughts and rituals
Their texts and traditions
Their fierce struggle to etch the suffering of this day
into the dark stone face of the universe.
The spirit of their little lives,
a melody made of a thousand shrieks of joy and terror
A billion first breaths and a billion last deaths
The rests between notes.
I see that to make my mark is nothing.
I must join my mark to the line.
By Patrick O’Neil Duff, Senior Editor
Today I turn 32 years old. My life consists of daily interaction with my two-year-old daughter, my four-year-old son, and fifty-some-odd college students. In other words, I live in a cesspool of unwashed hands and runny noses, surrounded by individuals who don’t know how to keep themselves healthy. For the past month, I have been swapping various pathogens with little prospect of health, and right now, I am sick. Worn down and stretched thin. And it’s my birthday.
Last night, with a great sense of weary contentment, I finished a rough cut of the Praying the Hours segment entitled “None: The Story of the Mournful Songwriter.” I wanted to take a moment and share my experience.
“None” tells the story of a musician whose musical career and ambitions have dwindled and who lives within a tension of competing hopes and dreams, a reality in which much is desired and little is fulfilled. A business owner and family man, he has little time to devote to anything outside obligation, and often even obligations fall to the wayside. Though the possibility of a career in music has darkened as a possible horizon for None, it is still the place he finds expression, beauty, sadness, solace, and regret. His life is not a daily grind of gears—the gears have become so worn down that they spin aimlessly, no longer even able to achieve any desired purpose. None’s spark is all but used up; but then old friends return, and a chance to rekindle that spark of long-abandoned dreams is realized.
I borrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton in the following thoughts on kairos and chronos time—a concept at the core of the Praying the Hours project. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox at its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.
Chronos is a circle; it seeks to keep everything bound and under control. Kairos is a cross, a collision and a contradiction; it is something unleashed and released. Kairos breaks into chronos, the extraordinary into the ordinary, the sacred into the profane, the infinite into the finite. It is the Incarnation of God as Jesus the Christ, it is Paul the Apostle’s experience on the road to Damascus, it is the still small voice and the “strange warming of the heart,” that John Wesley described as the believer’s experience.
Every story in Praying the Hours has this kairos collision. For me, this moment happens in “None: The Story of the Mournful Songwriter” in the final scene, as None stands at the back of a crowd, watching his friends play music, contemplating a paradox of weariness and contentment:
I see that nothing lasts forever.
I can make peace with that.
But I still feel alone.
As I have spent time with this edit, I realize that None and I are kindred spirits. At one time, my dream was to work in the film industry. This dream faded as my prospects to fulfill it fell away one by one, and other things in my life filled the void. Other passions and talents were revealed to me: I love to teach, I love being a husband and a father. However, in this process, I gave up my creative dreams when I felt drawn to attend Fuller Seminary, a graduate institution for the study of theology. I became active in leadership at my church. I started investing in people, family, students, and I gave up on any notion of making movies. Since I started seminary in 2007, I hadn’t worked on a single creative project.
And then my kairos moment happened. Director Lauralee Farrer asked me to be involved with Praying the Hours, and at first, I told her “no.” How could I commit to anything more with so much going on in my life—family, work, school, church? It was my wife, Sarah, who gave me a firm shove in the project’s direction. Break free.
Film editing was something I had given up on. I had let it go. Mourned its loss. Moved on. And then I believe God gave me something I had buried and forgotten. God gave editing back to me. A mind-blowingly amazing, undeserved, unexpected gift. And I am devastatingly thankful and humbled.
I am weary yet content. I am officially a year further in this journey. If kairos is indeed a signpost for free travelers, as Chesterton posits, we must have our heads up as we walk, ever looking around for these signposts which light the way.
Francis Ford Coppola said that a film gets made three times: when it’s written, again when it’s shot, and yet again when it’s edited. These are all crucial stages to storytelling in film, and each one has its own demands and creative requirements.
We are in a season where all those stages are intermingling: we are editing Compline and None; syncing Terce so it can enter the editing process; shooting pick-ups for Terce and None; finishing scripts while in preproduction for Sext and Prime; and drafting treatments for Vigils and Lauds. That doesn’t take into account all the ancillary elements to keeping a production going. Blogs and tweets and posting facebook updates and finding money, filling out our equipment packages, casting, securing locations and navigating the never-ending challenge of no-budget filmmaking: scheduling.
It’s good to stop at this stage and acknowledge that everyone who lends a hand during this time is donating to the Praying the Hours project. The hours that Meaghan Baldwin has spent in Pasadena sync’ing audio and picture for Terce. The hours that Greg King has spent at his studio in Los Angeles helping to define the editing style for the project through his work on Compline, or those spent by Patrick Duff helping to bring the footage for None to life. The hours and hours and hours spent by producers Rob Bethke, Ron Allchin, Matt Webb and Tamara McMahon who meet weekly to keep things in motion, to schedule (and reschedule), to search for lens prices, to ingest or copy footage, to color correct stills and to send the scores of emails necessary to firm up all the details of an active production shoot. And those who pray and who send money. All of them, filmmakers.
In our story on “Terce: The Story of the Single Mother,” we consider a woman (played by Liz Montgomery) who is facing difficult times that can be traced to a series of lies, bad decisions, and denials that she has allowed herself. Primarily because of her own intentional obliviousness, she is plunging headlong toward a ruined life. She is engaged by three strong-willed strangers whose intentions to come to her aid seem, at first, to matter more to them than it does to her. That’s because she has numbed herself with denial (something a lie always does) and these characters see the danger she is in even more than she does.
In storytelling mythology, the presence of three women combining to affect the fate of the story’s hero is very familiar—from MacBeth’s three witches to Sleeping Beauty’s three fairies. In this story, they are like furies (i.e. literally meaning “avengers”)—Greek mythological characters from beneath the earth who “punish whosoever has sworn a false oath.” There is the hint that the furies embody the self-curse that comes with being false.
Terce’s three inspirations take the form of a woman from the local church (played by Keri Tombazian), a contentious neighbor (played by Leontine Guilliard), and a helpful grocery store clerk (played by Nikki Barger Wheeler). Combined, they represent the presence of the Holy Spirit that is one of the characteristics of the Hour of Terce. The Holy Spirit moves as it will like the wind, and comes to our aid in the most unlikely and unpredictable places. In her story, Terce is visited by the Traveling Man who helps her to see how she might take advantage of the help that the women are offering, but that she must ask for their help first, that is, she must call down the help of the Holy Spirit. By admitting her mistakes, her need for help, and opening herself to gratitude, she can avail herself of their willing aid and find the joy and vibrancy of life that she needs to transform the hard days ahead.
We are very pleased to announce that the Reel Spirituality initiative of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts (of which PTH director Lauralee Farrer is artist in residence) has made it possible for donations to Praying the Hours to be tax-deductible.
On Wednesday evening, June 6, 2012, we finished the 3rd of 9 shooting segments we hope to have completed by the end of this year. We will need approximately $42,000 to reach that goal, and then on to post production and distribution strategies. For those who would like to help with these costs or ongoing monthly payments, checks can be sent to:
Burning Heart Productions
Post Office Box 1658, Sierra Madre, CA 91025-9658.
Checks must be made out to “Fuller Theological Seminary”
“RS #2940-000 for Burning Heart” must be in the memo line in order for it to get to us.
Thanks for the ongoing monthly support of many—you might want to consider this option to benefit you when tax season comes again.Special thanks to Carmen Altamirano whose thoughtful inquiry started the process that led to this very convenient result.
With gratitude and love,
the Praying the Hours producing team: Lauralee Farrer, Tamara Johnston McMahon, Ron Allchin, Matt Webb, Rob Bethke, Grace Oh, Terence Berry and Kiri Zooper.
PS if you prefer to give through paypal, go here for instructions.
A strange thing happened on our first day of principal photography for “None: The Story of the Mournful Songwriter.” The script called for a woman to interrupt the main character “None” (Aaron Paul Ballard) as he is trying to write a song. She urges him to open his frame shop early because of a framing emergency.
Because framing “emergencies” are hard to come by, we had concocted this idea that she wanted to frame a rock and roll poster for her boyfriend’s birthday party that night.
A long and equally strange series of events led me to send a Facebook message to director Michelle Steffes the night before and ask if she might be available to play that customer. She wrote back, “do you want me to act? Or to help you find someone?” I knew for certain I wanted her to play the customer, but I couldn’t explain why. So I didn’t. A great sport (and a good actress!) she said she would give us her day, but that she had one chore she had to take care of: a framing emergency. Imagine her surprise to be called to the set of a functioning frame shop.
Her boyfriend’s father had passed away that week and she had to get his photo framed for the memorial service. A strange coincidence. While I was trying to tell her what I wanted for the first scene, all I could think about was her boyfriend’s father.
Finally, I realized why: the hour of None is when monks go into their cells alone and their prayers include the petition for a “holy death.” That means they face the disappointments that accompany the “none” season of their lives, and ask God to sanctify their remaining years. I asked: will you let us frame this photo in the film? She called her boyfriend, and he said yes.
That found moment shifted the tone of the whole scene. When her character returned to pick up the frame job, she was invited to an impromptu Parson Red Heads concert that night, as a way of lightening what was sure to be a heavy evening. She asked what she owed for the framing job, and I told Aaron, “just tell her it’s on the house, and to ‘come back in happier times.’” So, Aaron said just that. And, in a case of life imitates art, he gave her the framing job he had done, and he choked up on every take (and so did I). Later that evening, when None sees Michelle at the concert, there is a brief but very genuine moment of connection between them. We did not film what we planned, we filmed what we were given.
I do not know Michelle’s boyfriend, but I spent quite a bit of time with his father’s photograph that day, filming it and framing it, and—for my part—praying for him and for the family. It was a very rich and mysterious connection. Just the sort of thing one should expect from this particular hour of prayer. We asked permission of Joey (through Michelle) to tell this story, and he agreed, adding: His name was David. Rest in peace.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
One recent morning, before the None shoot, an unexpected expense came up that was very disheartening. That afternoon, in an equally random, unexpected way, someone texted to say she had been praying for us, and thought: I could give some money. I could do that. And a figure came to her mind, so she thought, that’s good.
The expense was over three times the amount of the donation, but a strange thing happened: we were more encouraged by the gift than we were discouraged by the expense. It made me wonder if there is such a thing as kairos (grace) money as well as time.
The incredible timing of her gift gave us the feeling that God sees us and draws others to us who are called to pray or to give at just the right time—this is a mysterious lesson that is as inspiring as it is unpredictable. It gives you the assurance that you are not alone. That, as Goethe said, the cosmos will open to help when you need it.
Other amazing things have given us the same “illogical” but profound encouragement. For example, we were planning on shooting with two cameras, but we still hadn’t received all the equipment for the one Red Scarlet that we ordered and paid for back in October. Yet the day of our first shoot here in Los Angeles—the very day—another friend of the production received the Red Scarlet camera he also ordered back in November, and he rushed it over to us to use. To my mind, that’s two miracles: that the camera arrived within hours of our need for it, and that the new owner was as excited as we were that we should use it. The brand new camera for which he’s been waiting breathlessly since November—that’s the one that he dropped off for our use and thanked us for the privilege of doing so.
We are limping through the costs one inch at a time. That is stressful. But now and then, at just the times when we need it, an inspiring gift of confidence, generosity or other encouragement will come through. Like the day that a location turned sour and we lost an important venue, only to replace it immediately with something much better—Mario’s Añejo Duddery in Echo Park. We rewrote the scene to make use of his unique place, and we had a blast. He thanked us over and over for coming to his shop, took photographs with us, invited us back, helped move equipment, acted as an extra in the scene—even loaned Aaron Paul Ballard a shirt for a pickup scene that he later gave him as a memento.
Alongside these uneven ups and downs, slowly but surely, we’re shooting the project. We are 2/10ths of the way done. No one is quitting their day jobs or wrecking their marriages or losing their health, and the film is starting to get in the can (or the hard drive). That, too, is a mystery. It’s not easy. Tamara and I were just discussing yesterday how this work pushes us to our edges and forces us to face our weaknesses. But it’s good work. And good stories. And good filmmaking. And in the midst of the good stories and filmmaking, the generosity of friendship is the truly transformational power, through which we end this process different people than we began it.
Thank you, Patrick Duff for the photos, and for your remarkable friendship.
When we were in Indiana, early one morning before a day of shooting, I texted my friend Keri Tombazian to ask her to pray for me. I realized with horror that I had texted her at a little before 3 a.m. in Los Angeles (or at the hour of Vigils). Later, at a “decent” hour, I texted again to apologize. Typical of Keri, she replied: “don’t ever worry about that. My phone is on kairos time.”
Kairos, of course, means “grace.” Chronos time is the polar opposite, it is unforgiving, relentless, unstoppable. That’s the time we live by, mostly, with the exception of the transcendent kairos moment here and there. In a conversation with Tricia Harding the other day we were both bemoaning the fact that in this life, at least, we will always be caught in tension between chronos and kairos. The late Ray Anderson put it this way: we are made of dust yet we have eternity in our hearts.
Making this movie that focuses so intently on the hours, you’d think the one thing I wouldn’t forget is time. The truth is, I not only forget the hours, I forget to pray them. That’s a short route to hypocrisy and to losing sight of the purpose of this ambitious project in the first place—which is to dive more deeply into the mystery of the place where time and prayer merge.
So, we have a modest plan. We have a small team that thinks about distribution and social media, as we hope that by the time we’re done with this project we’ll have our own delivery system for it. In those conversations, we’ve been considering the value of Twitter for slowly building an audience. We invited Eric Jessen and Matt Lumpkin to one of our producer meetings to give their opinions on the subject. Both said the same basic thing about the secret to Twitter: say something interesting.
Among us, we decided what would interest us would be a daily tweet at a specific hour of prayer with a reflection, scripture, or thought about the personality of that hour. To remind us that while we are making the movie Praying the Hours we ought to be praying the hours as well.
Starting on Monday, March 26, 2012, and for 30 days thereafter, we will tweet every day at 3 p.m. at the hour of None—the hour we finished shooting last week and are starting post production on. Follow us on @praythehours .
None is the hour of the day when “shadows lengthen.” There are only a few hours left to daylight and the heart sinks to consider it, knowing that you will not complete all that you hoped to in this day (it applies equally to a lifetime). This is the hour to pray for courage, to rise up and ask God to help you focus on something that has eternal value. It’s a good hour to admit your limitations and embrace grace.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
The “found moment” is our shorthand for authentic moments that inspire a film but cost a fortune to orchestrate. Here’s an absurd example (except that it happened in the movie Ray): A common hummingbird flies in your open window and buzzes there, then zips out. Your heart pounds as if it were an angelic visitation. You write, of a person who has an epiphany, “a hummingbird flies in her window.” Later, producers have to organize a scene that requires a hummingbird wrangler or expensive CGI. To make an even sillier point, at the time of its release, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, while the sinking of the Titanic happened for free. What cost so much was making it happen on cue.
On a far smaller continuum of epiphany to disaster, independent filmmakers try to manufacture the organic moment just like big budget filmmakers do. On PTH, we are using a shooting style that is half-documentary and half-narrative to capture the truthful moment, much as John Carney did so beautifully in the movie Once.
We write a story, built of bones and filled in with dialogue and action—instructions of the kind of thing to look for and to film. When actors are cast and locations secured, we rewrite around the reality in order to accomplish the same ends as the first script, but in a more organic manner. When the script for None called for a baby to be sleeping and she was irrevocably wide awake instead, we rewrote a scene that required a laughing baby.
Before the None shoot I showed DP Abraham Martinez the locations in advance. He said, “these locations are perfect for the script!” Of course they are, I wrote to them after they were secured. We write/film/edit a story from pieces of real life, relying on our ability to see the narrative in the circumstances surrounding us. I told one cinematographer: “God will show up. It’s your job to get it on camera.” This requirement to be present is unnerving to some and liberating to others. To my mind, cinematographer Jordan McMahon is the prince of the found moment. He knows how to compose and frame a shot, but he also has a sixth sense of when something is about to happen—even if it’s stillness—that speaks to the moment the scene calls for.
During one of the scenes it was my job to pick up a mousetrap and place it in one of the kitchen cupboards. We filmed it enough for me to let my guard down and realize that mousetraps are nothing to be afraid of. And then, while scooting the trap to the center of the shelf, it snapped shut, flinging peanut butter in every direction. I have no doubt my screaming was heard in Canada.
That was a simple—and hysterical—found moment that was easy to catch. Recently, as we shot the story of None, there were sober, winsome, sad, pensive, and charming moments, such as a moving bus throwing a maze of shadows across the frame shop (seen by Abe) or a picture frame reflecting the expression of the framer as he works (seen by Jordan). In the script I wrote the line of dialogue: “I just don’t think about it.” After that, on a location scout, I saw a small framed image that had written on the corner of the canvas “I try not to think about it.” That was eerie. And now I realize, often that’s what it takes: stop thinking, and see.
By Director Lauralee Farrer
If you’ve read Matt Webb’s blog on the Kinema Commonwealth, then you understand why I rankle a little at the name “extras.” I don’t need to buy the world a coke and teach it to sing harmony, but extras are human beings, not happy meals. I know that actors are used to the title “extra” and not offended by it, but I like what they are called in the world of opera: “supernumeraries.” The word simply means someone who is paid for a temporary contract, but I like hearing them called “supers” and I like that the word can be applied to actors, professors, police, ministers, judges, military personnel, writers or—if Wikipedia is to be believed—knights and ladies. Now we’re talking royalty.
Extras are the rarest kind of human being—people who will drive all the way from their homes to Echo Park late on a work night, stand in line for an hour just to be in the blur of a filmclip, and go inside to stand for two more hours while the band they’ve come to hear is annoyingly stopped and started and stopped again. In the case of our independent film, they didn’t do it for a paycheck, or to save $5 bucks at the door, but just because they are friends of the production, and because they enjoy one another’s company (and a free Parson Red Heads concert!). We are indebted to Emily Morton who organized our crowd on the night that we shot a vintage clothing shop turned temporary club, who cared for people, made sure they knew what was happening, and whose gift to the production in that form cannot be repaid. Our DP Abe Martinez overheard one of the extras laughing who came out to hear the Parson Red Heads in our PTH story of “None, the Story of the Mournful Songwriter.” Kerry Royce has a unique laugh that he recognized right away: “I used to hear her laugh listening to podcasts while we were in Africa,” he said, “it made me feel like home.”
That’s sort of what extras do—make a unique environment feel like home, and I cannot thank them enough for coming out that night. They give a scene authenticity, focus, attention. Tish Dragonette is the consummate extra. She has a great time while she is there, is patient, attentive, and interested. Not to mention beautiful. Kahle McCann too. He’s good at paying attention and helping to direct focus to what you are trying to create out of thin air, which is, of course, some approximation of real life (also beautiful). And Sarah Parker: unique, lovely, fun. When I listened tonight to Loren Roberts’s mix of the Parsons’s set, I could hear the voices of our friends cheering: full-throated, happy, believable, committed. The script calls for “the crowd goes wild” and for Evan to say, “thank you. Thank you.” When I heard exactly that happen, I got goosebumps, and I thought, that’s more than I hoped for. Something extra.
No matter how much I think I’m going to give the attention to our stories that they deserve before we start shooting them, as time runs out I find that I increasingly feel like a mother who has left a child unattended somewhere. As we get closer to shooting, I have nightmares of walking the street looking for something and I can’t remember what it is. Stress dreams.
What calms me during these times of disbelief in myself is the belief in ourselves. The deep-down confidence that we are so much more capable than the inadequacy we fear; that everything’s going to be all right. If I can calm enough to let that emerge, I won’t worry whether circumstances go perfectly or all wrong. Remember in Indiana when we discovered that our lens was drifting out of focus and nearly 1/3 of our footage was unuseable? After the first wave of nausea I thought, “oh, this is just the place in production where all is lost.” I have been there before.
Tomorrow we will start a few days of prep to shoot next week. Our producers are belabored with setbacks: jury duty, a much-needed paying job, sickness, work deadlines, burnout, tragic losses, worries about money that hasn’t emerged, locations that fall through, exorbitant permit fees, and equipment that has not arrived. We have asked for help too late, too little, or too inelegantly. And through all of it, I wonder: are you all right? Do you know that night and day we are thinking about, preparing for, planning for you?
I remind myself to trust the layers and layers of creation that have gone into this coming week: the story conferences, the hours of writing and rewriting, equipment prep and location scouts, casting, props, endless conversations—and soon the shooting, acting, capturing of footage and the editing, color correction, music, sound mixing later—layers upon layers upon layers of chances to improve. Literally hundreds of people giving their good will, their love, time, money and energies because they believe. Then I think, how can we fail? Think of the army of people, the hours of time, the love. That is a potent river of force.
Deeper yet, I remember that we are telling a story of something ancient, set into motion with the beginning of the world, as old as time. We are not making something up, we are clearing the debris to get in touch with something under the surface, that already is. We are throwing all our inadequacies into the flood of that God-spoken creation, and we believe that something extraordinary, something transcendent can happen. This experience—our own epiphanies, not just Traveling Man’s—is what God wills for us. In some way to calm ourselves and “know that God is” means to embrace the idea that we cannot fail because this isn’t something we are creating in the first place.
It’s only one step from “how is this possibly going to come together” to “how can this possibly fail?” But that’s the step between backstage and onstage, between “wait for it” and “now!” Once we step out, as we will tomorrow, we throw caution to the wind and trust that God is going to show up.
Here we go, again, my friend. See you tomorrow.
by Director Lauralee Farrer
The character of the Traveling Man in the Praying the Hours project is crossing over from this life into the next, and he carries in his pocket a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s book of poetry on the divine hours. This is a nod to Dante being guided through the Inferno by the Roman poet Virgil, and our statement that something other than logic is necessary to navigate the space between the worlds of the seen and the unseen.
In this life, and in the next, our crucial journeys require an eternal word too deep for common speech. In my faith, God created the earth and those of us who walk on it by speaking just such a word of mystery. Later, God embodied that Word to become human.
Traveling Man is “summoned” by the Hours as they appear by his hospital bed, and in the 24-hour period it takes him to die, he observes their lives from the perspective of eternity. A series of epiphanies guides him through the day of his crossing over, and leaves his friends also subtly changed.
In at least one of the segments of our project, “Compline, the Story of the Reluctant Teacher,” the Traveling Man reads one of Rilke’s poems aloud to the character of Compline—a decision we made in the moment of shooting. We chose a poem that had been translated from the German by DP Martina Nagel for the compline chapter of the book Praying the Hours in Ordinary Life. As Chris Min read, we were all moved by the eerie symmetry between the poem’s imagery and the imagery we were shooting:
I live my life in ever-increasing circles
That stretch across all things.
I may not manage to complete the final circle
still I must attempt it.
I revolve around God, the tower of old,
And I spin amidst thousands of years.
Yet I remain unclear of my role—
am I a falcon,
or a beautiful song?
Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen I,2
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours
As Chris read the poem and we filmed, something beyond speech happened, and the poem and our experience merged.
Friend of the production Denise Klitsie quotes Walter Brueggemann on the mystery of experience and poetry illuminating each other. He says, in fact, that the work of prayer, “consists in the imaginative use of language to give extremities their full due and to force new awareness and new configurations of reality by the boldness of speech. All this is to submit to the Holy One in order that we may be addressed by a Word that out-distances all our speech.”
by Director Lauralee Farrer
In each of the unique stories for the Praying the Hours series, the writing team draws on the realities of our locations, the stories of the actors, and the personality of the Hour of the day for each story. It’s one of the tenets of no-budget filmmaking to write around what already is, but in our case, it goes deeper than budget. Our shooting style accommodates capturing the unexpected—much as might be the case with documentary filming. In the case of each person we’ve asked to portray an Hour, we’ve tried to craft the story in such a way that the telling will be deeply intuitive for them. Often, that means drawing from the life of the actor for the story they will be telling—a very untraditional choice to make. In most cases, this requires great bravery from our cast. Marcia Whitehead recalls:
In sculpting the script for Compline, the director wanted to borrow heavily from my life experience to bring the Hour of Compline to life. As we discussed this on several occasions during the weeks preceding the shoot, I became more and more emotional, fearing that exposing so much of my soul would be profoundly painful. It’s not that I was afraid to let people into my life on a deep level, but I was afraid that reliving certain experiences for the camera would take me back into the emotional depth of the original events.
On the evening we shot a nursing home scene where Compline’s adoptive mother speaks cruelly to her, panic overtook me, and I actually told the director I didn’t think I could do the scene. What saved me was the wonderful woman who was cast in the role of Compline’s adoptive mother. Marilyn Sumner is one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met and we formed an immediate bond. My brother and I are both adopted and it turns out that Marilyn has two adopted children so we connected on many levels. She was so dear during the shoot that when the camera stopped rolling, she was eager to be sure her dialogue wasn’t hurting my feelings. We assured each other that we were just “playing pretend.” My feelings were not hurt at all, actually, and we had a great time together—she said to the crew afterward that it was one of the most significant experiences of her life! And my fears of reliving past pain were never realized.
by Director Lauralee Farrer
It’s risky to use non-actors to do your storytelling—you have to know that something else about them is compelling: that the camera will find them interesting, that they are going to give something authentic that will be moving, they are going to be brave enough to bring something fresh that no one else could bring.
The process of capturing those authentic moments relies some on shooting style, but mostly that the actor will allow the director to guide them someplace they might not expect, but where they’ve already agreed to go.
There is an important moment in the story of Compline when she opens a photo album to see photographs of herself with someone recently dead. Such a strange experience—to hold in your hands evidence of their existence, and at the same time know that from the taking of those photos to the looking at them, everything has changed. You hold proof in your hands that they existed, and yet they are no more.
That scene was the first one in which we asked Marcia to speak in Compline’s voice, and I knew she was willing, but also circumspect:
Up to that point, I had not been required to speak on camera, so I didn’t feel pressure to “act.” I was nervous, however, because somehow I felt like the real challenge was about to begin. In previous days, when I felt I’d blown it on camera, I would stop and apologize or somehow acknowledge my error. Lauralee came to me before this scene and very quietly said that no matter what, don’t break character or acknowledge the camera or production team in any way. She told me to just go with whatever happened. I sensed there was something behind her admonition, but accepted it at face value. In this scene, I was to open a photo album that arrived in the mail and see photographs of Compline with loved ones. We shot photos of me with fellow actors Chris Min, Liz Montgomery, and Aaron Ballard to be used in that album—so those were the photos I was expecting to see. However, on the first page was not Chris Min but Matthew Diederich—our beloved friend on whose death the Traveling Man is based. Though I was stunned, I remembered that Lauralee warned me to keep going no matter what. I stared at his sweet face, and the tears that came were not “acting.” One of the things Chris Min told me about acting is to always tell the truth. In that scene, I did.
by Director Lauralee Farrer
When I asked Marcia Whitehead if she’d consider portraying the character of Compline shot recently in Indiana, I knew that water would be involved since our story team had already decided we wanted to use water in all its forms (immersion, drinking, ice, rain, snow, etc.) as a metaphor for dreaming, so water will play a big part in the hours of compline, vigils and lauds.
I was pleased to find out that Marcia loves the water and the opportunity to swim in it. That’s good, because we did more than four underwater test shoots in the Webbs’ terrific indoor swimming pool. What I was not as pleased to discover (after the fact) was Marcia’s fear of ladders. She writes:
I knew when Lauralee invited me to portray the character of Compline that I would be faced with many challenges because I’m not a film actress. But I was certainly not prepared for all that I would be asked to tackle. There is a dream sequence in Compline that required me to climb down an iron-runged ladder, built into a concrete wall, while dressed in a floor-length nightgown and robe, wrapped in a bed sheet, and wearing 3-1/2 inch stiletto heels. I am not afraid of heights or airplanes, and tall buildings and rooftops are enjoyable places for me. Ladders—not so much. Physical strength and coordination are not my greatest assets, so it took a lot of courage to climb that ladder without begging the director to find some other way. Thank goodness for fellow actor Chris Min, who was below me with a reassuring hand on my back to ensure that I would not fall to my “death by concrete floor.”
Another part of the dream sequence was shot in an indoor swimming pool on a beautiful snowy day, once again in the floor-length nightgown and robe, with the bed sheet. I had to get up on the diving board backwards on my hands and knees, crawl backwards to the end and climb down into the water on a metal ladder attached to the diving board. Again, with the ladder—again, in stilettos! It took a little trial and error, but I did it—over and over and over again.
Poor Marcia! Due to a drifting focus problem with our long lens—we had to reshoot that backstage ladder again, and once again, she had to climb. I have many times said that Marcia is a good sport, is fearless, is bold, but I had no idea that a ladder would threaten her more than some of the other risks I have seen her choose to take. However, in her boldness, she overcame. She says:
When we reshot the scene of me climbing down that iron-runged, perpendicular ladder, I was on about the fourth rung before it occurred to me I wasn’t remotely afraid!