Frugal Film-making on Jervois Road

Director Rose Riddell and D.O.P. Tom Burstyn on set

I'm in New Zealand writing the production blog for 'The Insatiable Moon', a movie based on the 1997 novel by Mike Riddell - a magic realist story of mental health and miracles among marginalised people in Auckland.  I'll re-post some of the journey here too - you can follow the whole story here.

There was a time when the term ‘independent film’ was a near-guarantee of quality or at least interest – making a film like ‘sex lies and videotape’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs’ required so much superhuman effort that it was a miracle if they were even finished. Distributors, alas, needed an economic reason to invest, rather than merely their aesthetic sense, and if your small film with no stars didn't happen to be lucky enough to attract the attention of a wealthy gatekeeper, it wasn’t likely to be released.

It was easier for big-budget special effects-laden extravaganzas to get seen simply because audiences can be trusted to flock to them simply because we all want to see ever more spectacular ways of destroying New York, or to the latest film starring whoever happens to be really famous at the moment merely on account of the fact that they're in it. Without the stars, or a decapitated Statue of Liberty for much of the audience, there is no show. Or so the superficial received wisdom goes...

Independent film-making eventually adopted major stars, and you’re now as likely to see a marquee name in an independent film as you are to see a well-known character actor from the 1970s in a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. The lines have become blurred – indie has become cool, and of course, indie has become far more accessible than ever. The equipment has never been as cheap, the opportunities to learn from the internet never more available. Everybody wants to make a movie. And sometimes remarkable things occur when people put the resources of time and talent and money to the service of a human story. Tom Burstyn, Director of Photography on ‘The Insatiable Moon’ has been on both sides of the indie/corporate canyon, having shot more than 70 movies, and worked with actors including Oprah Winfrey, Matt Dillon, Jessica Tandy; he shot Paul Newman’s late classic ‘Where the Money Is’, a vastly underrated, smart little film, and has worked on massive mini series such as a recent endeavour to represent the life of Marco Polo on screen.

Why, then, do we find him in a small Baptist church on Jervois Road in Ponsonby, shooting with a hand-held Fig Rig, only using two lights, and with a crew small enough to fit in my living room?

One obvious thing about Tom is his love of the local, so when we sat down for some food to talk about his philosophy of cinema, it was for the most amazing bowl of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had. He had some mint spring rolls, but they sat quietly on the plate while he talked at length about what he calls 'frugal film-making'.

Tom’s critique of the status quo could be summed up as his view that ‘Producers are too often obsessed with gimmickry rather than being interested in expressing an idea’ – so fifteen lights and computer generated graphics and an exploding suspension bridge take precedence over the way the breeze is bending flowers and the look in a character’s eye. ‘The system of film-making is fear based,’ he says, with the ultimate fear being that the film being made won’t turn a massive profit for whatever bank owns it. Of course, the possibility of profit is partly determined by how much is being spent on the movie in the first place; and fear, you might imagine, and creativity do not happy bedfellows make.

Hence Tom’s passion for frugal film-making; a manifesto rooted in the notion that, as he puts it, once you have ‘a good script, a good director, and a good cast…artistry is taking things out, not adding them’. (You can read more about frugal film-making here.) Tom’s made two films with a crew of two; so ‘The Insatiable Moon’ must feel like a riot; but as I’ve observed him work over the past few days, it’s clear that his unruffled demeanour pays dividends among the rest of the crew. Too often film sets and other creative endeavours are full of anxiety; writers will perhaps contend that you need this – that a creative foment can occur when you take a work seriously enough to be anxious about it. Fair enough – but I think us writers would also say that, for the most part, it’s up to us to feel the anxiety and turn it into words before we arrive on set.

The principles of frugal film-making being applied to ‘The Insatiable Moon’ certainly make it a set not driven by fear; but it doesn’t diminish the quality of the work either – the actors are given room to breathe because they’re not worried about being in the right position vis a vis an invisible Godzilla that will be painted in later; and they’re not worn out by unnecessary multiple takes. The people embodying the characters of the people on Jervois Road go in, incarnate their lines, and the crew collect the information. Tom Burstyn once wrote a document called ‘Kamikaze Film-making: A Sociopolitical Manifesto on the Enlightenment of a Film-Set’; I’m not sure what the ‘kamikaze’ was referring to, because I think he’s slaying myths about the way movies are supposed to be made, rather than shooting himself (or anyone else) in the foot.