Burning Heart presents a Lauralee Farrer production

Philosophy

If You Build It…

by Christopher Min


Catherine Keller once asked, “What is theology but an incantation at the edge of uncertainty?”  I can’t help but consider that the same might be said of filmmaking – or more specifically, of Praying the Hours.

It was a faithless act, really – saying yes to Lauralee.  Or, if you prefer, it was a leap to faith in Kierkegaardian terms; it was not taken out of or because of.  Rather, a leap was taken, so faith became necessary.  My deep love and appreciation for LL notwithstanding, there was no foreseeable reason to say yes.  I haven’t aspired to express myself artistically in front of the camera for years, there would be no financial compensation, and the commitment would be formidable.  Still, I had an inexplicable compulsion to make what might be called a bet, a gamble – even a challenge or a dare – not to Lauralee, but to something else.

I have a friend, Jennifer, who is a practicing Hindu.  She tells me that when she goes to the temple, she hopes for the reciprocal experience and blessing of darshan, which involves the act of seeing and being seen by the deities of her faith.  In order for darshan to occur, the deities must be invoked to inhabit constructed representations, in this case statues, bearing their respective likenesses.  She tells me that if there is no deity, there is no exchange, no darshan and of course, no blessing.  But what has this do with filmmaking?

Elizabeth Gilbert has spoken of the illusive nature of creativity, explaining that in ancient Greece and Rome, creativity was not believed to originate in humans.  Genius was not a state to be achieved or a thing someone could be.  It was something disembodied, something independent, something other.  It could not be possessed or controlled, but it might be encountered.  Since then, the enlightenment has brought about a shift in conceptions concerning the locus of creative enterprise.  As the spaces for conversation about that which lies beyond the realm of epistemological verification disappeared, the locus of genius, creativity, and inspiration shifted to human beings.  As Wittgenstein famously concluded, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”  But passing over in silence need not imply that we can’t at least leave an empty space at the table.  You know, just in case.  For my part, participating in Praying the Hours is an attempt to leave just such a space.

Through my experience thus far, I’m beginning to intuit that faith resides in the building, the constructing – or the leaping – as it were.  For me, it began with the incantation of an affirmative response; the ‘yes’ in the absence of reason.  An openness to possibility, a bet, a dare to that which must be passed over in silence.  Now, collectively, the onus is on us to set a stage here, at the edge of uncertainty.  Our construct, our representation is comprised of C-stands and lanterns, makeup, hard drives…  The equipment, the material, the medium is really not important.  It’s all just matter unless, amidst our strange alchemy, the inexplicable happens and the ineffable decides to shows up.

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Wearing Many Hats

by producer Rob Bethke

Part of the adventure of producing low-budget films is the necessity to step into many different roles – in other words, filling in the gaps in your production crew.  I used to fall into the trap of imagining filmmaking as a bit of a power trip, where directors and producers impart their brilliant visions upon the crew and then sit back (sipping a latté) and watch the little workers carry out their creative wills.  Of course, I would have never admitted that I expected such a thing, but it’s probably there in the back of the minds of many a wannabe filmmaker.  The reality is quite different, particularly when you are forging your own vision into existence without relying on an angel investor to pay all the necessary humans for their expertise and long hours of work.

This is a low-budget film production.  There is no studio executive hovering over us, tweaking the script, micro-managing budgets, and constantly thinking about how this film will make millions of dollars by appealing to males 16-23 years-old.  We are beholden to nothing except the vision of the writers and director.  Now, there are plenty of limitations, but there is also a significant lack of stress that makes it much more enjoyable.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard, however, which is suppose to be the theme of this post…  We work very hard… to be team players, to care for one another, and to get the film made with professional quality.

Local news interviewing our director

Let all aspiring filmmakers have ears to hear what I have to say!  Your work ethic and positive attitude are worth much more than any specialized skills you may bring to a film project.  If you want to find your way into “Hollywood” (a goal which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend), or if you want to figure out how to be a part of making films, then work hard and be happy.  A willingness to step into the jobs that no one else has time to do – but desperately need to be done – will win you deep appreciation from the producers/directors, who will most likely want you to be around on their next project in a larger capacity.  Likewise, a person who is polite and pleasant to work with gives energy instead of taking it away from those around them.  We all would rather have “energy-givers” around us!

I came to Indiana for our first shoot in January of 2012 not exactly sure what I would do with my time there.  My responsibilities have mostly kept me busy with social media and web presence for Praying The Hours.  But as I observed and listened to the others on the crew, explaining the challenges and needs of the production, I realized that there were gaps that needed to be filled and that I needed to step into them.  One of our key producers became sick, so I volunteered to cover some of his responsibilities on set.  By continuing to observe the frustrations or stress of others around me, I often saw that I had the time or energy to take tasks from them so that they could breathe easier.  This kind of

Lots of hard work put into beautiful lighting.

attitude is invaluable on any production.  Those with such willingness to DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE – without whining about whether it was my “job” or not – are the ones that I want working with me on film sets and the person that I try to make sure I am being when contributing to film projects.  That’s how you become a filmmaker.

(FYI, all the pictures here are random and have nothing directly to do with this post.  Just some that I grabbed on my phone during occasional breaks in production while in Indiana)


Just Tell the Truth

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.


Narrowly Avoiding Death by Concrete Floor

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!


Squarely in the Middle of My Experience

by Director Lauralee Farrer

While in Indiana we shot a scene that borrowed heavily from the life of singer Marcia Whitehead who portrays Compline. It was brave of her to be willing to let us write it into the story. None of us—including her—were prepared for what would happen when that scene was shot. As she said afterward, she tapped into something unexpectedly deep and wide, and suddenly we were not shooting the scene of an epiphany as much as we were having one. The shockwaves hit Chris Min who was in the scene with her, Martina Nagel who was behind the camera, Stephan Hughes who was holding the boom mic just out of the shot, and one of our producers who had to wipe tears from his face with his forearms afterward.  Even the student processing the DIT later revealed that listening to her dialogue changed his life.

What might a 55+ year old opera singer have to say while simply washing her face that would bring so many disparate people to empathetic tears? What deep well did she tap into that would make a 20-something college student say “I felt you were telling my own story in there.” Martina said later, musing, “what happened in there is very very rare. It’s extraordinary, what happened. Extraordinary.” She gave up trying to define it. She didn’t have to. We all felt it.

This is an example of the reason we decided to expand the stories of the Hours to more than just the 5-7 minutes each that will fit into the narrative feature. Taking the time to tell the longer story of each Hour gives us a chance to linger a little while and be surprised. The surprise is how universal these things are turning out to be. That’s what we are after—telling our stories cleanly enough that they can bridge the often wide and treacherous gaps between people who mistakenly think they have nothing in common.

Not long after we shot that scene, I received a note from a theology and art student named Cynthia Glass, who has been following the PTH website:

To be honest, I don’t really know why I am writing this email . . . maybe just to tell you how deeply moved I am by the subject matter, to the point that I can’t visit the website for very long without being overwhelmed by the bittersweet tightness in my chest. . . . That the depth of life can be lived in a moment is a concept that has dogged me my whole life, but I’ve always brushed it aside for want of the ability to verbalize what it was that I felt. Now, the more I read about the development of your film . . . it’s so rare that I find a work of art that hits so squarely in the middle of my own lived experiences. There have been a few pieces of music, some literature and now this. Anyway, here I remain: in awe and bursting with hope at the thought of what this project could be.

These are humbling and yet rewarding sentiments: we hope to make something that extends beyond ourselves, that reaches someplace deep that we can share in recognition together.


To Sanctify the Day and All Human Activity

by Director Lauralee Farrer

When sixth-century Benedictine monks stopped eight times a day to pray, their intention was to infuse menial work with the sacred by reminding themselves of the presence of God. They believed that being in the service of God can transform a temporal act into an eternal one, and the daily prayers were intended “to sanctify the day and all human activity.”

It’s a stretch for some to consider filmmaking a sacred calling, but there is little difference between plowing a field, making soup, cleaning laundry, and changing from a wide lens to a long one. The chores are not more or less sacred, but rather the purpose of the chore-doer. It is a deeply held belief in the Abrahamic traditions that all of life can be infused with the holy. Persian poet and mystic Rumi made the point succinctly: “The man pulling radishes pointed the way with a radish.” If pointing the way has eternal value, pulling radishes can be as sacred as preaching.

A production assistant on our recent shoot in Huntington, Indiana, was overheard to bemoan, “All I do all day is run back and forth.” The process of filmmaking is hardest, in some ways, on the P.A.’s: they have youthful dreams of being film directors but start out feeling like servants. Keeping a set running smoothly requires a cadre of willing and indefatigable facilitators to cook, drive, pick up, clean up, arrange, and rearrange an infinite number of details. Hardest among the chores, to quote Milton, is the patience to “only stand and wait.” The whole process can grind to a halt for something as small as a missing prop or a crew that needs coffee, so every activity in the communal process of making a film is equally important.

We are filled with gratitude for those who cared for us in Indiana: for the churches and dorms and university offices and individuals who fed us; for the students who drove us back and forth to the airport or who spent days running errands; for Huntington University that gave us sweatshirts so we might better survive the cold; for the families and friends who donated money so that we could pay for things that could not be donated or purchased at thrift stores; and for the community of people who prayed from afar and helped us carry an array of burdens.

Primarily we are grateful to HU Digital Media Director Lance Clark and our own producer Matt Webb who managed the myriad of elements necessary for us to capture Compline’s story on camera. Their generosity of spirit sanctified our days, and made our work on this segment of Praying the Hours a terrific experience—a fine example of Martin Luther King Jr’s challenge: “anyone can be great because anyone can serve.”


You Have No Events Scheduled Today

by Director Lauralee Farrer

Yesterday and today my Google calendar informed me that I had no events scheduled, yet they were two very different days: the first so complicated it was impossible to record all that had to be done; and the second with a single chore—go home.

Last night around 11:00 p.m. we shot the “martini” (or final shot) of Compline for the Praying the Hours project. Fittingly, it was an image of the Compline character standing on the stage of her dreams. From the time we started arriving in Indiana four weeks ago until last night, all efforts to bring Compline to life are captured on our hard drives and shuttles.

For now, the most demanding stage of one of our stories is done. The material we’ve shot will enter the next stage of creation with senior editor Greg King to whom we are giving some beautiful imagery, performances, sounds, and experiences made by a very generous community of neighbors and students. We had our first experience of working together as a team within PTH, learned a lot, had a great time, and left fulfilled and exhausted. At around 2 a.m. this morning cinematographer Jordan McMahon said, “we’re gonna miss this in a few days.” And we will.

Independent filmmaking is like white-water rafting—you can spend months getting the right gear together and making meticulous plans only to jump into rapids that are outside your control. Two kinds of skills are required then, the ability to plan strategically and thoroughly, and the ability to roll with the elements. It’s rare to find both of those characteristics, but we saw it in abundance throughout the shoot. There were plenty of McGyver’d shots involving pyrex trays, china balls, pool lights, and jerry-rigged lenses and batteries for a camera so new that all the accessories
weren’t even available for basic functioning.

We had annoyances and heart-stopping misfortunes, things that irritated and things that threatened to shut us down—like a main actor delayed a week by bronchitis, a rented lens that drifted out of focus and ruined days of principal footage, sick crew members, broken heater systems, and most of all, wildly shifting weather. From 50 degrees down to 10, we had rain, sleet, snow, and sun. Beautiful vistas that are great for tourists but nightmares for film continuity.  Still, even those situations were redeemed beyond anything we might have imagined: lost footage was reshot with stronger rewrites, a week’s delay of shooting meant more time to adjust to the learning quirks of new equipment, shooting all eventualities of weather meant terrific production value, and our needs activated an amazing generosity and hospitality in the community.

We leapt into the rapids, threw our urgent requests toward heaven (with the help of a great many of our friends and family), and then our untamed God did his own thing. That’s unnerving if you have plans that require you to maintain control, but for those who worship a God who is bigger than they are, the result can be something transcendent beyond anyone to control or even explain. Which is probably why, even now, the story team is writing and the production team planning the next and the next and the next.


Unforgettable Characters in Seven Minutes or Less

by Director Lauralee Farrer

In a recent interview for the Los Angeles Times, Steven Spielberg described the challenges he faced with The War Horse, a film that stitches together a series of strangers by their mutual love for the same horse. It’s a big structural risk: it might easily become a series of disconnected vignettes. Given he had approximately seven minutes each, “making the characters unforgettable was the challenge,” he says.  I was intrigued by his comments, as the Praying the Hours feature faces a similar challenge.

As I sat on a cramped plane to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, prepping for a project with roughly the bagel budget of a Spielberg film, films using similar structures sprang to mind including  The Red Violin, The Yellow Rolls Royce, and even Crash. Crafting story is the great equalizer: when it comes to creating a screenplay that works, Spielberg’s writers boot up their laptops the same way we do. Our writing team includes some of the best talent I know—Kiri Zooper Hart (producer of story development), Martina Nagel, Jonathan Foster, Matthew Webb, and Tamara Johnston McMahon—yet worrying over this challenge has taken quite a bit of our focus.

The key to unforgettable characters is authenticity, in what my friend Bobette Buster calls “the gleaming details” of life that everyone senses to be true. Every story’s challenge is to create characters that are genuine, we just have to do it quickly. We have to keep the audience interested while we describe the character of the Hour convincingly, interestingly, and above all, in vivid familiarity.

In the two-hour feature that will comprise the core of the Praying the Hours project, Traveling Man will have about seven minutes to visit with each of the eight characters embodying the Hours. The descriptions of the characters give a hint at how we have worked to be both universal and specific:

  • Vigils, the Doubting Believer
  • Lauds, the Childless Woman
  • Prime, the Rushing Man
  • Terce, the Single Mother
  • Sext, the Recovering Stranger
  • None, the Mournful Songwriter
  • Vespers, the Grieving Fiancé
  • Compline, the Reluctant Teacher

Once we started casting, our characters began to come to life, and they will be the living, breathing incarnation of our stories. Now that we are entering production, we will see if what we’ve been able to articulate on paper can come to real life on camera. Or, to put it in language appropriate to the season of Christmastide, if the word can become flesh.


The beginning of production

Since I started writing the script for Praying the Hours nearly a decade ago, it has been a long and emotional ride to January 2012. During that journey, loved ones have been born and loved ones have died—including Matthew Diederich, whose last words to me were, “when are we going to make Praying the Hours?” Shortly after that conversation Matthew was killed, and the heart of our current feature script is based on our imagination of his journey from this life into eternity.

Many still and moving frames have been shot in attempts to embody time and prayer into characters. Untold time has been spent in design and camera planning; and words, words and more words have been written and passionately spoken and prayed. Countless hours pursuing production financing have been invested by producers who never lost their passion for the story, but weren’t able to secure the funds and filmmakers who started the journey with us but are unable to continue.

Now—at our own risks—the current team moves forward with faith in the project’s value and our determination to bring it to fruition with or without financing. As our friend Dottie Davison says, we are counting on a “budget of God’s love” to carry us to the mysterious end.

In January, we will have two Red® Scarlet™ cameras and a fantastic team of filmmaker-friends who will travel to Huntington, Indiana, under the supervision of segment producers Matt Webb and Lance Clark, where we will complete the first of ten shoots, and launch on the long road to capturing this ambitious project for the screen.

As of the end of 2011, our leads are cast, our cameras purchased, interns being gathered, our production team organized, and our stories in development. We push forward knowing that nothing gets achieved without momentum, and also knowing that we are throwing ourselves into a fray that we have all, in one way or another, felt called to engage. We have made our plans—now we see what epiphanies will happen along the way.

Thank you for your interest and your company,

Lauralee Farrer

Director, Praying the Hours

Regarding our funding…

“Be calm and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” –Gustav Flaubert

Independent films like the Praying the Hours project are often made on a wing and a prayer, as the saying goes, but every production of this size needs a budget and a schedule to move forward responsibly. That’s how to create calm and order in the world of pre-production so that all the “drama” (story and otherwise) ends up on screen.

We’ve created these pages because, in the words of our friend Keri Babbes, “how will we know what you need if you don’t tell us?”

We have spent a good deal of time strategizing equipment, schedule, budgets and financing. We can use help at nearly every level: money, talent, prayer, and sage advice. When we say we need $120K, it’s likely that those are up-front hard costs that we can’t finagle around. Suffice it to say that those of us at the center of this are risking all we have to risk, continuing to move forward in faith, and trusting in the mystery to create its own momentum. To paraphrase Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof: “this is true [we need the money to move forward], and this is true [we are moving forward no matter what], and they can’t both be true. And that is also true!”

There are hard costs (e.g. equipment, airline tickets, insurance) and negotiable costs (e.g. remuneration, travel amenities, food), but everything needs to be done whether it’s paid for or not. What seems to separate the takers from the givers is in the details—are people treated respectfully? Is the work valued and given our all? Is the work worth doing? Independents are used to working for little or deferred pay, but that can’t compromise what ends up on the screen or we’ve all wasted our time. It’s also true that life is short, and we ought to expect to value the communities in which we are privileged to work, and to nurture long-lasting relationships.

That’s what we are after: to love each other and the work so that it communicates love to the audience when it finally reaches them. That is our grander goal, otherwise, a film is just a film.

Thank you for your support!

– Lauralee and the producing team


Lauralee and all of us offer huge thanks

Lauralee and all of us offer huge thanks to Staci Armao for her donation to Praying the Hours! http://ow.ly/i/lkZT