Reading and Watching List

MW here –

What follows (as I have been asked this question a lot over the last barrage of interviews) is what I have been reading and watching.  It got me thinking a bit about how my choices towards films and books has been leaning as of late.  Since much of what I watch and read now is many times influenced by my own filmmaking tendencies,  over the next year (2013-2014) I’ll put it all up here, (the films in CAPS and the books in CAPS/ITALICS) and see where it goes.

11/1/13 PAIN AND GAIN

11/2/13  ROOM 237 (2013)

11/3/13   THE PATRON WAY by Ilana Edelstein, MCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971)

11/4/13  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), THE STORY OF FILM – RADICAL DIRECTORS

11/5/13  L’ECLISSE (1962), MOVIEMAKER MAGAZINE 

11/6/13  ONE BIG SOUL – AN ORAL HISTORY OF TERRENCE MALICK by Paul Maher Jr., ULTIMATE FIGHTER (TV SHOW)

11/7/13  THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE (1952)

11/9/13. IRON MAN 3 (2013)

11/10/13  CONTEMPT (1963), WALKING DEAD (TV SHOW)

11/11/13  LETTER NEVER SENT (1959)

11/13/13  FAST AND FURIOUS 6, PIT BULLS AND PAROLEES (TV SHOW)

11/14/13 STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (1965), I AM CURIOUS YELLOW (1967)

11/15/13 SEEKING DOLLY PARTON (rough cut)

11/17/13 THE SWIMMER (1968), THE STORY OF FILM – 1980s

11/19/13 STROMBOLI (1950)

11/20/13 DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

11/22/13  CAPTAIN AMERICA – THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

11/23/13  LONE WOLF AND CUB – SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972)

11/24/13  STEPHEN KING ON WRITING by Stephen King,

11/26/13 THE TRAIN (1964)

11/28/13 THE RAID (2011), THE STORY OF FILM – END OF CELLULOID

11/29/13 LONE WOLF AND CUB – BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (1972), CONTRABAND (2012)

12/1/13 THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952), THE TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962)

12/3/13 RIFIFI (1955)

12/5/13 CITY LIGHTS (1930)

12/7/13 THE DOLL SQUAD (1973)

12/9/13. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) What a performance!

12/13/13 GUN CRAZY (1950)

12/15/13 TOKYO STORY (1953)

12/17/13 PRISONERS (2013)

12/20/13 SILKWOOD (1983)

12/24/13 VARSITY BLUES

12/30/13 LONE WOLF AND CUB – BABY CART TO HADES

1/2/14 BROKEN CITY (2013)

1/3/14 ADORE (2013)

1/4/14 WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

1/6/14 THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962)

1/8/14 THE HINDENBURG (1975)

1/10/14 OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013), CAGED (1950)

1/11/14 HERE COMES THE BOOM (2013)

1/13/14 BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

1/14/14 HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)

1/15/14 LA NOTTE (1961)

1/16/14 TORA TORA TORA (1970)

1/19/14 NASHVILLE (1975), THE MAKING OF NASHVILLE (2013)

1/21/14 MAROONED (1969)

1/22/14 SPRING BREAKERS (2013)

1/23/14 GRUDGE MATCH (2013)

1/27/14 ROLLERCOASTER (1977)

1/29/14 RUSH (2013)

2/1/14 TROG (1970)

2/3/14 AUTUMN SONATA

2/4/14 THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

2/5/14 ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

2/8/14 AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

2/11/14 SECONDS (1966)

2/14/14 THE BIG GUNDOWN (1968)

2/16/14 LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

2/18/14 HOMEFRONT (2013)

2/20/14 THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

2/22/14 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)

2/24/14 LONE WOLF AND CUB – BABY CART IN PERIL

2/26/14 THE NAKED ISLAND (1960)

2/28/14 SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

3/2/14 LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973)

3/5/14 THE NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI

3/8/14 HER (2013)

3/11/14 DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967)

3/14/14 DEEP IMPACT (1998)

3/17/14 DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)

3/21/14 ZARDOZ (1974)

3/23/14 TRAFFIC

3/26/14 THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

3/28/14 THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952)

4/1/14 THE PERFECT STORM

4/4/14 RAMBO (2008)

4/6/14 FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)

4/7/14 LATE SPRING (1949)

4/9/14. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

4/14/14 AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

Exposing The Mortals – Rescuing the artist from the commerce (or how Zombies vs. Bigfoot can still be good)

Michael Here —

Remember when it dawned on you that your particular art or trade was what you would pursue in your life?  Somewhere early on you were so impassioned with the idea that you said: “I’d do it for free”.   In other words, it was the unavoidable drive of expression and creativity that stirred you at all cost in that direction.  So if film is for us “filmmakers” (including actors, writers, designers, etc.) the medium meant to replicate the intentions and passions of those past generations of artists (Rodin, Van Gogh, Mozart, etc.) who formed the basis of what we know today as classical art, then something was seriously off.  The idea of da Vinci saying to himself, “Well, it seems the trending art market today is leading towards portraits of seated women.  I guess I’ll paint something that I’ll title the ‘Mona Lisa’ as I bet it’ll do huge business” is pretty ridiculous.  Yet it is hardly uncommon to see the filmmakers we know who have spent any time in “the biz” now being driven by what is marketable rather than what truly inspires them.

ENCHATING PIC 7

I know those that work in the business whose approach to film-making, including writing and acting, has manifested more into “marketing” and “selling” themselves over the confidence in their own creative instincts.   I fall in that place all the time myself.   Who we “are” being consumed by who we think everyone else wants to see.   Not that one can’t inject their own language into a largely stilted project (Val Lewton was a master of that) but when your drive for acceptance replaces your unique inner urge to articulate, I think you are becoming the follower rather than the leader.   Though as a producer, I do understand the need to make something worthy of the investment.  If one is to survive in this business or any business you have to make sure you are making money.  I’m not sitting in a parking lot with a can of beans and a tent trying to tell you to just dive off a financial cliff (though in my career I’ve come close to that location and can a few times).  In fact, quite the opposite.  You are not going to have longevity in this town being a robot.   There are more people with the money looking for those original voices over the ones looking for the laborers.  If anything, being true to your personal talent and creativity is what is going to make you a more desirable commodity than simply “faking it”.  Though yes… faking it is sometimes part of it.

ETM77

There is “safe” writing and “safe” acting and “safe” film-making that when relied on too much will lose you in a sea of others like you.   Being original does not mean being abnormal.  There are times where you have to write or act in or make things you may not want to, but you can still do it with that sense of “self”.    If we lose the willingness to fail for our originality in favor of the mathematical safety of the business trends we may regret it later.  There are those who can become too lost in their own musings  in trying hard to be “original” or different (we’ve all seen those films where we feel like we got hit over the head with a mallet).  But a sensible reminding of oneself to believe in what got you here in the first place and to trust in your original ideas and process will make you stand prouder in the end.

Since I have only in these last few years reconnected to the idea that film is the clay and canvas of my own “art”,  I have once again begun to reapply instinct back into the imagination .  And should I live a life worth remembering, then it would be a shame to spend it making stories up rather than expressing ones I don’t need to.  I’ve done the “by the numbers” scripts, the in vogue films, and they are no more likely to hit the bell than the ones that scream “damn the torpedoes” first.   And so with my film “Enchanting The Mortals” which we shot earlier this year,  I allowed the transparency of my own thoughts rather than the structure and mathematics of Hollywood fortune telling dictate my “voice”.  I wasn’t looking for original, I wasn’t looking for “hit”, all I was looking for was the clarity to express the ideas of the moment.  I am more afraid of being the “same” then I am of being “bad”.

ETM0

I think most writers (and this goes for other artists as well) find that each script or book or short story they commit themselves to, includes some element of their personal life.  It may be as simple as a name of a character or two (in the SyFy film script I wrote called “Devil on the Mountain”, all the characters were named after people I grew up with) or something slightly more abstruse as in the story’s tone or a simple “tick” in a relationship between characters.   We do this because it is something unique that we know, something real we can relate to, and in turn this connection should in theory create poignancy via the medium we are working in.   Occasionally our stories can also be largely based on events or circumstances we experienced in our youth or in some recent past that we have always wanted to recapture and explore.  And so in making “Enchanting”  I was tackling one of the more challenging films I have ever done.  This story was solely a means to focus on the much deeper and assailable issues of relationships and the many stages and behaviors we face through love and fear.

Writing was always a more vulnerable task for me than acting.  There is always something about acting that even when you may be digging into the darkest and most painful recesses of your history to lay bare for the sake of a scene, it is still your private moment hidden by the mask of the character you are portraying.  If your tears must flow for a scene, and thinking of your long, lost dog is what does it for you, the audience is still only seeing you as the contrite hit-man wailing over his assassinated wife (or mother/partner/workout buddy) rather than the tortured dog owner.

But when you write something from scratch, when you create from the fertile recesses of your mind, there is a much more palpable exposure and vivid magnifier into your personal world.  Even if it’s a radical zombie vs. bigfoot script with vampire cheerleaders thrown in, you can’t help but feel your personal life is so much more unmasked.  I have always felt a little more critical of the things I have written over the many moments on camera I have performed as an actor (and that does not come from my over confidence in the latter).   Even when the story is as fictional as you can muster, it still contains the flaws, foibles and imagination clearly belonging to you.  But it was that scary prospect ironically that I wanted to get over.

ETM03

In writing “Enchanting the Mortals” last February, I was not looking for the next award winner, a new “indie take on relationships” or some swank project to grab people’s attention.  It was meant to be just for myself; my inquisition into those mystifying emotions and incomparable actions and changes that arise out of our deep and sincere connections to people.   In other words; the enigma of falling in and out of love.  I write about love almost every time I put finger to keypad, even on the most subtlest of scales.  Love may not always be the syrupy Romeo and Juliet type, but can even be a love of life (the drama or even horror film) or of country or idea (the action film).  But what made this attempt so much more penetrating for me was the sole focus of investigating that conundrum.  The script was becoming more a narration about what I don’t understand rather than what I do.  It was replete with questions over answers and stitched together via fragmented memories over a more structured dramatic narrative.   I wanted to tackle the subject not as a subplot, but as the focus of the story.  The inspiration for delving into this was so great and so caustic from start to finish that the first draft was done in just 8 days (my previous best was 10 days for Seeking Dolly Parton, if “best” is appropriate).   But the first draft of “Enchanting” would have not have been soberly shootable.

ETM19

That was not just because I was using actual names of people who the characters were based on (something I do many times while writing to help me remain truthful to my goals) but because my “freedom of expression” was so well executed that the script read more like a melancholy love letter to a fading suitor on a fog shrouded shoreline (yes, that was how it actually read) than a screenplay. I’m all for breaking the rules, but you still need to apply some rules within any film-making rebellion.  Draft number one would have sent the audience home exhausted, dizzy and depressed so I knew a little structure was still required.  But it was important I tackle that side of nature that we men typically shy away from.  Our instincts to be the survivor and the provider leave little room to invest much time in the frailty of our souls.  I’d rather go punch the bag then vent my feelings, but then if making films was easy…….

In recently looking through a book of art by William Hopper (an inspiration for much of the photography in my films) it was clear to me that every stroke was done with emotional susceptibility dripping from his fingers.   I wanted that same integrity to return to my work.  And so it was somewhere about day 6 or 7 in my writing sabbatical I realized that purging through a 90-some page screenplay simply to just sit on my shelf was not going to suffice.  The classic sculptors and painters, back in a time when the artist’s voice had much more difficulty being heard, conveyed their ruminations on life, love and death for themselves, but also intended them to be explored and pondered by an audience (another subject which arises in my last film, “Catfish Blues”).   The journey I had begun with my writing I now knew would not come to completion until I had manifested it into its final stage: a film.

Image

And so, I was barely typing FADE OUT on the first draft by the time I had raised enough money to get this story in front of the cameras (at least in my driven state of filmmaking insanity I believed I could).   Within a few days of my pittance of a budget arriving, I miraculously received the “I’m in!” from my first choice for a leading lady, Kacey Barnfield.   Though in some ways different from the girl I would be having her portray, her sense of spacial honesty and own truthful transparency was VERY much what was needed for the film.  Keep in mind, getting a first choice for an actor is one thing, but getting one for deferred money is quite another.  So I counted myself as very lucky.  I had worked with Kacey the year before on another micro budgeted film called “Seeking Dolly Parton” where I watched her give in to her character so fully that I had no doubt she would draw this one to vivid life.  This person she would be playing was a difficult one as she was representing the seductive stability of allegiance  while still portraying a somewhat tentative sanctuary.  And to see her willingness to place herself into a somewhat experimental role, if not also an extremely translucent one, I knew she was stepping in with the same willingness to fall as I was.
ETM13I

ETM83

The last few days before the small crew (my loyal crew and cast of regulars as well as a few new converts… I thank you all) was to drive to Monterey where we would shoot the first third of the film, I had to reconstruct some of the more obviously personal details, people and places I had chosen to include and blanket them in a more fictitious Mise en scene.  I would not stray from the truth that got me here, but I also knew the film needed to stand on its own.  It is one thing to leave yourself exposed on the page but you also need to make sure it is translated to others.  This reassembling of reality into narrative would also in some ways help me approach the directing from a more micro-manageable way.   My broader focus as a writer, painting a bewitchingly painful picture, was for the most part done (though I’m a big believer in allowing moments of inspiration and collaboration to take place on set).  Now the more objective hat of the director needed to be worn to make sure that on a technical level I could illustrate the words on screen.

ETM71

Earlier that month I had driven from Los Angeles to the Monterey Coast in search of the many locations that would visually portray the moods and tones of the emotional journey the two characters go through.  It was not that difficult to do as with the variety of landscapes and the rawness of my own disposition at the time, drawing those connections would prove to be the easiest part of the whole process.   Standing in the middle of  Central California, among natures’ most resilient attributes and man’s more modern assault, could not have been a better reminder of what I was doing this for.

ETM05

We would shoot about 8 pages of sequences along the drive, speeding through the scenery to drag out the amazing “magic hour” for as long as we could.  And this would be the first of a continuing examples of the honesty of the interpretation of this story.  The period of dusk is in itself a gorgeous time to shoot (and much easier on the exposure) but for me it had to have another purpose, one that was not solely for aesthetics sake (both Rossellini and Cassavetes had indicated in their own works, if a shot was beginning to look too pretty, they’d muck it up or cut it out).  Dusk and dawn have always represented a more palpable transient part of the day.  Where we can notably watch and experience one moment dramatically changing into another.  And as one of the larger questions of the piece was the transmutation of emotion and feelings, I tried to shoot as much of that time of day as I could possibly get away with.  To “paint” the locations in a state of constant change,  giving the appearance of metamorphosis always looming on the horizon.  There are times where a shot or the lighting or the staging are so purposely drawn it removes one from the organic moment of the story, but as this film revolves mostly around a man’s memory of a significant romance, the slightly enhanced settings would be appropriate for this view of his history.

ETMIMG_3369

When the cast and crew arrived to our destination of Monterey, I knew that the returning to both the areas of my childhood and the origins of my vocation would be the absolute right place to start the beginning of this cinematic romance.   The opening of the film takes place on a film set being shot in a coastal town.   The romance that blossoms between these two flawed but genuine people appropriately begins in such a fantasy setting.  Both of them vulnerable and passionate yet still afraid and concealed.   Here in this state of inculpability and purity, both feel comfortable enough to let their expectations down of  both themselves and each other and allow the dawning emotions between them to bloom.  This journey they take will certainly lead to the unexpected.  And it may also lead to a difficult climb or possibly even to a dead end one.  But it will be an important journey and an essential one to take because when we stray too far from our heart and begin to cling too tightly to the fears of failing and hurting, we lose the gifts and possibilities being given to us.

And that gift also includes trusting our “artist” to come out.

ETM37

View the film’s trailer here:

Looking back on the film work of Karen Kim

by Michael Worth

During my twelve year friendship with Karen Kim, we managed to work together on more projects together than almost any other person I knew.  Through that body of work, she showed me a subtle  yet distinctly different range in her ability as an actress that always surprised me, even though it probably shouldn’t have.  The array of characters she has portrayed only struck me this week as I began to look back on them while thinking of her since her much to early passing.   I feel lucky to have had those opportunities with her and think we all are a little luckier to have the ability to watch the flickering images of her talented self for the rest of time.

Here, I have decided to take a moment and look back on our films together so that if any one of you are interested in seeing some of her work, you may find this useful to help guide you towards one or more films to see or maybe visit again.

US SEALS 2

“Seriously, this movie rocks. If you are kung fu fan or into b-movies in anyway, then check out U.S. Seals 2.” – Cool Target Review

This was the film I met Karen on shot back in 2000.  A crazy, over the top, popcorn action film about a group of trained commandos going to an island where they are unable to use conventional weapons to stop a mad man from…. That’s right; blowing something up.  Karen plays a pair of twin sisters, one of which will go on to the island with a samurai sword to start racking up a body count.  Many actors with little or no fight experience make unstable action stars at best, but Karen managed to turn her dancing skills into deceptively authentic fighting skills.  Working closely with both the director Isaac Florentine and fight choreographer Andy Cheng, she threw herself head first into the combat scenes and without my relying on hyperbole, she really looks good!  Watch her fight with Sophia Crawford and Andy towards the end.  We spent three days shooting those scenes along with my fight with Damian Chapa and is probably my favorite sequence of action I have ever done.

Karen also had to do more than morph into an unstoppable Lady Snowblood samurai, she had to adopt a Japanese accent (which Hakim Alston had no idea she was going to do and if you watch the scene with all of us around the computers half way through the movie, you can see we are all trying not too laugh because of his reaction to her voice) throughout the film.  We rehearsed for a week before shooting so most of us were already pretty sore before the cameras were even rolling but Karen kept up and did it with relish.  Karen also had to play beyond the mechanized killing machine and show some deeper emotions in several scenes.  So if you want to see Karen at her physical peak, this is the one to watch.

You can also search on youtube for a Behind The Scenes mockumentary she and I did (The Bulgarian SEAL Project) to keep our heads sane while shooting there.  Southworth, Alston, Mitch Gould, Marshall Teague, etc., all find their way into it.

KILLING CUPID (WARRIOR OR ASSASSIN)

In 2003, I was given a VERY small amount of money, 15 cans of old 16mm film stock and a Lorenzo Lamas.  I was asked to make a film in 8 days by a film producer looking to squeeze a few dollars from the action market.  And so I took the offer as a challenge and did the only smart thing; make a dark comedy with Easter Bunny hit-men where Ron Howard’s father plays a man obsessed with Bruce Lee rip off movies.  This experimental film was called Killing Cupid.  I asked a group of actors from a film called Ghost Rock I had written and acted in the prior year to come and take on this crazy script and even crazier schedule.  Adding to that mix, I brought in Karen Kim.

The story was about an assassin (Jenya Lano) who has an epiphany after shooting her target and seeks out the man’s son (me) for some kind of absolution.  When she finds him, she realizes the “outside world” is not quite what she thought it would be.  Karen played one of Jenya’s ex partners who with a group of other assassins seek her out to kill her.  The film was a fairly surreal comedy  (think David Lynch remaking The Killers with no script and then sobers up on the last day of shooting) and Karen like the rest of the cast, had to play some unreal characters as real as possible.  It was an experiment with not only story lines and performances, but technology as well (some of the film I actually shot on a Super 8mm camera, I used old Kung Fu movies for the credit sequence, etc.,).   We were all venturing into some very risky territory with our bold endeavor, but Karen, like the others, did not treat it with any less reverence than any other project. Her character, named Diamond, is the most myopic and pissed off of the group but she managed to take on the difficult task of making angry look funny and did it effortlessly.

DUAL

Out in the middle of the Arizona desert in 2005, Steven R. Monroe was directing my script, Dual with myself and Tim Thomerson.  The film was a surprisingly dark romance I wrote not long before shooting began.  I say “surprisingly” because that is normally not the way I tend to envision my ideas of romance.  But something was in that darkness that I felt had some merit and wanted to see it come to life. We had 11 days to shoot and were on about day 6 when our intended leading actresses dropped out.  We had one day to get someone out there for the four days left of shooting and we knew we were in for a rough one.  A character originally conceived as a very blonde haired and blue-eyed country girl, Karen’s type did not immediately jump out at me.  But when I presented the idea to Steven, he without delay said yes, feeling her being so off the archetypal route would serve the film much better.  And did it ever. With just one days notice, Karen Kim was on the set pouring her heart out.

Dual is a thriller set in the old west, where a drifter (that Michael Worth again) rides through a town and finds everyone has been killed.  As he remains to bury the dead and figure out what took place, he finds a mysterious man is stalking him on horseback.  Karen plays “Ember” the lone survivor of the killings who takes my character through an emotional journey that has a powerful outcome for everyone.  This part was by far the most emotionally draining thing that I have ever seen Karen play.  It is also in my opinion the best acting she has ever done.  Where she had to go psychologically is about as far as one can go on film.  Her organic portrayal of such a complex character still makes me tear up every time.  Monroe allowing the camera to stay on these long emotional moments and find the subtle shifts the way it does, helps so much to present the acting in its rawest form (“God’s Ears” Margot Farley also turns in a troubling yet beautiful performance).  And Karen’s role was not just an overly emoting persona, but at times a nearly silent one, relying on only her eyes to convey the range of feelings she was going through.  I had to do some of the most painful scenes of my own career with Karen and these still stand as the rare moments where I forget I’m watching myself.

It may be the most difficult film of hers to watch in many ways, the pain and agony we see her go through touches a lot of chords, but I think it is such a strong testimony to her talent and ability as an actor.

SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN

This was another script I wrote and Steven R. Monroe directed.  It was a “group of misfits on the run” picture with a giant hairy Sasquatch thrown in to keep it honest.  We knew what we were making so set out to try and fill the film with as much good energy and elevated performances as we could.  Lance Henriksen plays the man no one believes in who goes after a group of bank robbers and missing police in the deep backwoods before confronting his old primate foe.  Karen plays Kayla, one of the bank robbers that kidnaps the beautiful runaway bride Erin (Cerina Vincent).  And like Diamond from Killing Cupid, Karen is the more cold hearted member of the group.  But through the course of the story as the characters all confront their own personal “devils”, she begins to unravel and reveal the frightened child underneath.

At one point during the shoot, she had accidentally hit one of the actors (Frank Reeves) with the butt of her gun, cutting his head.  I remember seeing how badly she felt about it that day and contrasting that with the “not give a damn” person she was playing.   She had a way of bringing believably disturbed personas out of her very sensitive and caring reality that was always fun to watch.  Her back and forth banter with Raffaello Degruttola and Craig Wasson pushes the film along in my opinion.  Not to mention her scuffle with the equally durable Cerina isn’t bad on the eyes either.

There is a video on Youtube we all shot and I cut together on the making of the film.  It is fun to watch to see the cast interacting and you even get a little of the “gun on the head” aftermath caught on camera.

This would also be the shoot where she gave me The Black Eyed Peas CD she had just bought and I still play it in the gym to this day.

GOD’S EARS

I had a half written script about an autistic man wanting to box as a means of engaging with people when an old producer friend agreed to put up a nominal amount of money to make it.  This was the story I most wanted to make as I felt it was not required to fit a genre, but to survive on the merits of its own story and performances.  As I wrote it, I wasn’t even sure at the time I was going to be in it, but there was one person I wrote a role specifically for and that was Karen.  It was the part of a wisecracking dancer named Candy who was the lead girl’s (Margot Farley) best friend.  I needed someone who could believably embrace a Steadfast metropolitan personality but who for a brief moment finds solace through her friend’s more instinctive experiences.  It’s hard to play an injured, facade heavy, “funny sidekick” character as someone with vulnerability and heart, but as I knew, Karen could do it.

There are a few scenes in the film where I really see some genuine “Karen Kim” coming forth that in ways are not wholly apparent in the other films.  Her speech to Margot about “walking the tight rope” and listening to Tim Thomerson talk about Steve Mcqueen reveal what I always see as the real Karen (the Thomerson scene is also fun to watch as the bee at the end flying over her was unplanned and her line reacting to the whole thing is pure improvisational Karen).

This was also the second and last film that she would do with our cinematographer Neil Lisk.  Neil and Karen always had a great relationship and they both shared that nice balance of human kindness and fierce professionalism.  For that reason alone, the film stands out for me as exceptionally memorable.  One day in particular, when our camera broke down while we were 5 hours away from the nearest camera house, we all spent the afternoon in this beautiful setting in the mountains unable to shoot.  The movie crew immediately turned into a Cub Scout field trip as we all wandered off, taking in the sights.  At one point, Karen and Neil were both petting a horse over in a field and I remember thinking how valuable it was to have those two personalities like that under these working conditions.  I still see that picture in my head as if I had filmed it.

Today, the value of that is priceless.

You can find some outtakes from the film on youtube, one in particular with Karen where her cell phone goes off in the middle of the take and her embarrassment is clear even though everyone else laughs it off.  I was so proud to have been there in 2011 when Karen won a Best Actress Award for her performance in the film at The American Film Festival Awards.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF LANCE HENRIKSEN

Last year I returned to my experimental roots and made the hyper-documentary, Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen.  It is a film that will be out early next year at the festivals (and various screenings) that follows a somewhat fictional premise, but all the interactions contained are real and unplanned.  It is one of the most interesting and truthfully more difficult projects I have ever made.  I love its distinctiveness, yet that is what has made it such a challenge to form.

The project is loaded with long time staples of Hollywood just being themselves in precarious situations.  Lance Henriksen, Tim Thomerson, Adrienne Barbeau, Martin Kove, John Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, George Cheung, etc., all make appearances.  There is one group of sequences where Tim goes back to acting school against his better judgment and in one scene he bumps into Karen.  It would be the last thing I ever shot with her.

She came down to the acting school in Hollywood a couple days before she was to actually have some major surgery.  As with every one else in the film, I told her she should just be herself and let come up whatever she felt comfortable with in the scene but not to be anything other than who she really was.  In one of the takes, Tim starts to ask her how she is doing and Karen begins to sigh and tell him things are “okay” but that life is also full of challenges.  She didn’t hold back and began to talk about what she was going through, bringing Tim into the moment with her that is very clearly the two of them no longer being in front of the camera, but just talking to each other.  I remember the scene itself at the time had no real story point, but was just a moment where two struggling people in Hollywood connect over something much more real than the fictional life they are living.  Here was Karen facing the man that had tormented her in Dual, chased her into the woods in Sasquatch and expressed a silent moment of affection for her with just a baseball cap in God’s Ears, and the two were simply smiling at each other and talking.

And then the scene ended with a hug as Karen moved off towards the stairs, leaving Tim alone.

The last film I shot in early 2012, Seeking Dolly Parton, was actually going to co-star Karen.  Like God’s Ears, I had written a part just for her and we were going to film it at her business, Romp.  She was going to play one of the character’s boss and she wanted to include her Cancer experience into the role.  I wrote several scenes with her input, dealing with the struggle she was enduring at the time.  When we went to shoot in January, the timing with her real life was too strained to make the shoot work and so I took the role out.  I didn’t want someone else playing it and so I never recast it.

That role was meant only for Karen.  No one else could have filled those cinematic shoes.

Some of these films can be found online on Netflix, Hulu and even on the Syfy Channel.

A New Star Opens the Heavens

The first time I saw Karen Kim was high atop an archaic hotel roof in the middle of Bulgaria in 2000.

The film I was shooting there was Isaac Florentine’s US SEALS 2, and I knew the actress I was about to meet was playing the very stoic, disciplined Karate expert/ Samurai specialist who was my unsettled love interest in the film. Though as it appropriately turned out, she was also playing that character’s rambunctious and all-be-damned twin sister, so I wasn’t quite as taken aback by her animated entrance into my life.

Her laugh made it across the precarious rooftop of the building long before she did. Her bouncy gait told me she was as athletic as her character’s Bulgarian-terrorist butt-kicking role required, but like her colorful cinematic twin sister, she was also loaded with energetic personality. She sat next to me in her skintight jeans and t-shirt, raised her sunglasses and extended her hand:

“Hi. I’m Karen. I guess you and I are going to be kicking some butt”

That foreign filming experience set the tone of our relationship over the next dozen years: deep, thoughtful conversations intermixed with wild rides through alien streets and alleyways.

And that would sometimes take place before even leaving her front door.

She immediately shattered my perception of the gorgeous ex-cheerleader for the NFL. Granted, my perception of that type was rather vague and still shrouded in adolescent fantasy but she broke through it nonetheless. Her focused intelligence combined with an energetic playfulness made her stand out in a crowd. While shooting in Sophia, we would get lost for entire days walking the tangled streets and the deeper we got spun around, the happier she seemed. She was the tye that enjoyed the promise of her hard work, but also seemed content at times to toss it all away and risk a moment of discovery.

Over the years, she became not only one of my closest friends, but one of the most stalwart parts of my filmmaking team. After SEALS, I invited Karen to be in five more of my films, quickly learning that whatever I offered to her, she would become that part, embracing it with the same importance and passion that I had written it with. She got those characters, even in ways that I didn’t. And she got me. I realized that during the Christmas of 2005 when she surprised me with a gift of the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes’ Five Films DVD set. I had not told Karen that this actor/director became a sort of human road map for my career. She made that connection all by herself. “He sounded like you”, she told me. Though I knew I was far from as skilled, her recognition of my ambition touched me all the same.

Karen’s ability to adapt to our irregular working conditions through many of our independent films including Killing Cupid and God’s Ears, was always a welcomed relief for a director to see in one of his leading actresses. While in the 110 degree heat of Palmdale, Karen, playing a black leather clad assassin in Cupid, would between takes, simply strip down to her underwear, sit on the nearest box and fan herself until the next take. The few outbursts we would ever see from her, always concluded a few minutes later by her typical smile. She would address the small crew saying “Okay, thanks for bearing with me everyone in my girly moment of grief. I love you all”. And everyone loved her back for it.

When she was eight months pregnant, we went up to Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles to shoot some photos of her before she became a fully active mother. She effortlessly moved through the rough landscape (recently turned charcoal black from a controlled burn done in the area) wearing nothing but a shawl; a pregnant phoenix, rising from the ashes. Towards the end while on the rocks and the sun setting in the distance, she moved over to one peak, standing bare to the falling sun and smiled. “Mikey”, she said, as she always called me, “this baby is going to bring me a lot of these sunsets”.

And that was certainly as true as she said. She invited me to her home to take the first photos of them together there. Watching the way that small baby in her hands illuminated her face as if she were holding some brightly burning candle, was the happiest I had ever seen her.

A couple years later, I got a call from her and I immediately heard in her voice something was wrong. She needed to go to a doctor to have some secondary tests done for something she had not yet disclosed. She needed someone to drive her because of the nature of the tests, which may have prevented her from driving home herself. That day, though already aware of the possibility she was suffering from a serious form of cancer, she continued to discuss with me her future and how she wanted to start producing some of our films together. I was the shaken one that day, watching my friend with the tubes and needles protruding from her in the hospital bed even as she joked with the nurses. She continued to talk to me about her plans for a children’s play place she wanted to build for Skyler while I was the one doing my best to remember to breathe. All the while, Karen kept her medical staff laughing and smiling.

It may have been a month later when some of the reality had sunk in with her and we had a long talk about the expectation of her time here. Karen passionately ran through all her feelings and options, extreme as some of them were, all based on one thing: her daughter. Every thought that crossed her mind about being here on this earth or moving on to another place, all revolved around how it would affect her little girl Skyler. The love and concern she had for her daughter was as clear as anything I had seen. And it only grew stronger as her body grew weaker.

Sunday morning, when I was told about her passing the night before, I felt a deep loss along with a simultaneous gain that was almost overwhelming. My conversation with her just the week before was entirely about life. How during so many of our years on this planet, we can easily miss the gift in front of us. The “tool” of existence that allows us to grow and share growth with all those around us.

Our mutual dear friend (and “God’s Ears” cinematographer) Neil Lisk had passed away (also much too early) a couple years before, and we spoke about how it had opened our eyes to the impermanence of our stay here. We discussed how it made us feel, both discovering that living a life to be remembered means we must first live a life WORTH being remembered. And though being an actor is sometimes mistaken as the main stage in which someone can leave that kind of a mark, we both agreed that was far from true. Even the most famous fall into obscurity over time. It is in passing on the hope and the love to others, the gift of self recognition, that is the most memorable thing one can do. Your name and face may one day be forgotten, but the ripples you begin through the most genuine, truthful and simple acts will be the ones felt through the generations for the rest of time.

I see Karen’s ripples have only begun in those around her. And I am one that will be watching them grow for the rest of my time here.

I love you my friend. And I already miss you like crazy.

Mikey

Shadows and Light

Scouting some locations for a film we were doing near Bodega Bay, my cinematographer turned to me and smiled as we walked away from this beautiful old boat, beached on the sand at the foot of the Northern California waterway.  “This is going to be bloody brilliant”, he said. I just smiled back as I often did when he would have these outbursts without warning.

But that was just what Neil Lisk was.

Bloody brilliant.

On Wednesday, September 22, that brilliance joined the brilliance on the other side of “God’s Golden Shore” unexpectedly for all of us.  But like all bright comets, a trail was left behind.  And that trail was not only in his personal life with his family, including his wife Liz and their beautiful daughter Millie, as well as his friends, but in his unique profession as well; a Cinematographer.

As an actor, director and amateur photographer I shared his interests and passion with images, shadows and light.  The puzzle of solving a particular sequence or orientation of the camera to tell a story in deeper ways than even the eye could see was part of our mutual joy of creating.  Our short hand mode of communication about shooting developed quickly over three films, so much so that if there was a certain film or painting that I was trying to use as a blueprint for a given film or scene, he knew it.  And if he didn’t, 24 hours later he did.  He managed to balance out the need for expediency and yet maintain the level of perfection that we all strove for.  And even in moments where I would see others’ goals of perfection wane, his never did.

The relationship between a director and cinematographer is one of the most constant and intense communication lived out on a set.  For many years I used to feel the actor/director relationship was the most intimate but as I became more aware of the film making process I was participating in, I realized as strong as that relationship is, there was another more collaborative one.

As an actor I worked with Neil and my good friend, and his, Steven R. Monroe several times.  From this actor’s vantage point I became aware of their process together and how from beginning to end it was a constant pulse of assembly and problem solving that involved not only the creative construction of the film but the mathematics of production efficiency.  I noted this to myself so by the first time Neil and I stepped on set together as director and cinematographer on “God’s Ears” I knew we were going to be moving ahead together, shoulder to shoulder.  I had very little money to offer him and very few days to get a respectable job done, but Neil grabbed the subject matter with both hands and dove in with me.

And though his ability as a technician and creative thinker are the easiest aspect of him to recall, it was his people skills that set him apart from many of the others in this very surprisingly non-people sensitive business, period.  His receptiveness in connecting to the actors on and off set was better than most directors I have worked with.  He made those feel comfortable in front of that large and threatening glass eyeball of the camera.  My grandmother who at 86 years old had only to have faced the unobtrusive lens of a super 8mm camera when I was a child, was put at ease during the “God’s Ears” shoot, not by her grandson’s directorial skills, but rather the non threatening and jovial approach of his cameraman.  His timing of when to make someone laugh and when to snap them to energetic attention was a gift.  And one I appreciated more and more as we worked together.

I have appreciated the talents and knowledge of the cinematographer my whole life.  As a director, I may know the look I want, I may know the mise-en scene I have staged in my head and I may understand that the only light I want filling the scene is the key coming in through the far window.  But I’ll be damned if I know how to technically make it happen the way I see it.  And somehow Neil heard what I said, even if he didn’t at times agree with it, and went out and made it happen.

While shooting under great constraints and duress in Wisconsin on our last movie together as director and cameraman, Fort McCoy, we were sitting alone on a hill overlooking a location we had found.  We had just finished an extensive day together going over all the viable places to shoot effectively.  The talent, writers and producers had still not arrived from Los Angeles and we were only a few days away from shooting.  The pre-production over the last two weeks had almost been entirely just the two of us in a part of the world neither of us knew.  The film was set during World War 2 and we were now surrounded by rolling hills of green and an unreal blue sky wrapping over our heads with only the chirp of crickets providing any sound.

Neil suddenly stood up and walked into this giant vast field of flowers and reeds before us.  He bent down once he was a good 100 yards away and pulled up this unusual flower and brought it over to show me.  “This is great, huh?”, he said.

I looked at him quizzically and asked, “did you see that all the way from here”?

He gave me that straight faced look that only he could and said, “you don’t have to see something to know it’s there”.

I feel that way about you now brother.  I know you’re there.  You always will be.   As you have helped set the pace in my work and my life and for that I will be forever grateful.

All my love.

“God’s Ears” Feels Good

On Sunday, August 15th actor and comedian Hal Sparks was taking a moment to drag out the reading of The Feel Good Film Festivals final Award of the night, Best Feature Film. Earlier in the night, “God’s Ears” had been nominated for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Director but the awards would ultimately go to the deserving productions of Herpes Boy and Eagle’s In The Chicken Coop. As the list of prizes were read that went along with the award, both Margot Farley and myself looked to each other tacitly agreeing that whoever was winning this was going to be looking at some nice support towards their next film. A 60 thousand dollar in kind camera package deal from Panavision, over 10 thousand in kind rental credit from several grip houses such as Camadeus, Hollywood Rentals, ISS Props, etc., and to top it off a big bottle of TETEO Tequila! Nothing says award like alcohol and camera deals!

I was thinking about the day before when we screened the film in the Spielberg Room of the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Built in 1922, the place just felt like old Hollywood. This was where Sid Grauman held the very first Hollywood premiere and made me feel in good company with our very first Hollywood premiere. I had had some memorably good experiences in the past with several festivals “God’s Ears” was lucky enough to attend, such as Visionfest, Skip City, Japan and The Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii. What I always kept in mind is what made them so great was the thing being replicated here: awesome staff! These guys at Feel Good were attentive and gracious hosts making everyone feel like they belonged here and they wanted you to stay.

Being caught up in some development of other projects, I could not prepare for the festival like a responsible filmmaker should. I did not bring a poster or stack of postcards or even the cute buttons with a still from the film stating “support Autism”. But I made sure to invite any and everyone I knew, and surprisingly (as with promises to film screenings it can be) most of them showed up. Coupled with the other attendees we were only about three seats short of a full house. As always, the ever faithful cast and crew of Margot, Neil Lisk, Karen Kim, Alex Ballar and Dominic Daniels were there seeing the film for the umpteenth time. The screening was done on digibeta, which even though it lacked the vibrancy and scope of an HD projection was still fairly strong. I sat mainly on the aisle floor so I could get up and pace. I sometimes find watching my work as an actor or director a bit unnerving at times, even though I do feel it is an important part of the learning experience to see what the crowds respond to or don’t.

As the film ended, I was privileged once again to listen to the stories of a handful of people who have someone dealing with autism in their close network of family or friends. I never grow tired of hearing that “God’s Ears” reminds them of someone they know or in some cases of someone they want this person to be. It always reminds me that I managed at least once in my life to be a part of a film that went beyond being just a film and served a greater purpose in at least some people’s lives. Not much more you can ask of your art than that. As the small group of my cast/crew slowly dispersed back into the streets of Los Angeles it felt like one those family reunions that happen every few years where for a brief moment, you all connect, remember and then move back out into that space where time does not stop.

But on Sunday night, the culmination of the event was coming together. Though the audience/film experience in itself is truly the goal of all films, these celebrations can give actors and filmmakers some added validity to all the trials and tribulations of trying to get your film seen by a broader audience. As most of the productions here have yet to see the major spotlight, and “God’s Ears” is no exception, these hard working festivals make those struggling artists feel for a moment they have made it, have been heard and have been thanked for following their dreams. What may on the outside appear to be a group of the same people, in the same rotating industry, all patting each other on the back for a job well done, is in reality a personal reminder from your peers that you made a good choice and stuck to your guns when we all know the voices screaming “get a life” can be the more dominant echo between our ears.

As Hal turned the envelope over to the beautiful America (that would be one of the staffers, not the metaphor to the country) I continued to look at the audience. I had a flashback to writing the script in various Barnes and Nobles or Coffee Beans while trying to envision the words coming to life and now I was sitting with a packed house of people, some of whom have actually seen that vision realized. It felt strange. Odd. But maybe that was just the pessimist buried in me forced to face the reality that some dreams do come true and goals are accomplished when you persist in your ambitions.

“And the winner of The Feel Good Film Festival Best Feature is…… ‘God’s Ears’ “.

If Margot and Kerry Connelly had not started screaming and jumping up and down in the aisles it may have hit me a few seconds later what she had just said (later they would tell me they had wished their camera had been pointed at them as they never had a reaction like that before) but eventually it did. Maybe one day I can summarize and explain what goes on in your body and mind at that moment when there is this kind of profound recognition for an effort that you and a small army of like-wise individuals put their heart in over a brief period of time.

But until then, I will just hope I get more opportunities to examine the feeling before I make an attempt at it.

To all those hard working people at The Feel Good Film Festival, I want to say “Thank You” for all those individuals who followed me on this journey in which this great honor represents. People like you keep us all going.

- Michael Worth

Steve Mcqueen and The Tea Ceremony

Jap31

The King Of Cool.

One of the reasons I became an actor.

Japanese film directors.

One of the reasons I became a film maker.

Here I was at the pinnacle of my creative universe.  In Tokyo, a city raised from the ashes time and time again from Godzilla’s and Mothra’s constant trysts, standing across from the man who should have never been an actor and ended up a legend.

Or at least something that looked like him.  But not a bad likeness staring out at me through the Toys McCoy Window in Ebisu, Japan.  The streets here are a little rough for the uninitiated as many of the smaller ones have no names.  Just addresses.  Hard to say exactly where this store was but it was near the train station on the bank of a small river running past the street.  Inside there was a plethora of 1950 and 1960s Americana themed clothing, particularly of the raising kind.  helmets, dirt bike shirts, etc.  And then there was the Mcqueen stuff.  A window display of the out of print action figures was situated to the right as you walked in.  Detailed mini-McQueen’s of Josh Randall from Wanted Dead Or Alive, Virgil Hilts from The Great Escape, “Papa” Thorson from Mcqueen’s last film “The Hunter and Junior Bonner from, of course, Junior Bonner.

But the Mcqueen stuff got larger.  Literally.  Replica clothing, manufactured to the exact detail of his wardrobe in The Great Escape, The Hunter and The War Lover.  Jeans, sweat shirts and jackets.  But just to give you an idea of the dent in your pocket book; the blue sweat shirt worn by Virgil Hilts in the famous motorcycle chase of The Great Escape will sent you back about $160.

And that was the cheapest one.

So I walked out with a t-shirt that would have probably paid for a flight to Korea and went on my way.

Jap56

The next day the film makers were given a tour of the Skip City facility where our films were being shown.  The first stop was the amazing projection room that gave such vibrant life to all the films there.  The soda machine sized projector was controlled by a series of laptops that would control the 4K image shone on the screen.  No longer the spinning hub cap sized film reels but a sole hard drive containing each film was the source of the material.

Jap57

After this we were shown the mixing rooms, the editing rooms and the digital effects room.  All state of the art equipment used to give the final touches to the films that come through here.

Jap58

And then we were taken through the history museum.  Immediately on the left were some original storyboard drawings by Akira Kurosawa for the film he was ultimately replaced on, Tora, Tora, Tora.  Looking through the glass case I was in awe.  That kind of filmmaker-fan giddy about seeing something that was touched and created by someone you have spent years reading about and being Jap41inspired by.  Kurosawa was almost as well known for his art as for his filmmaking so it was really fricken-cool to see these.

A close second I have to admit was the original Godzilla drawings on the other side.  I grew up watching these films (I’ll always remember seeing Godzilla for the first time in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster paired up with the short of Bambi Meets Godzilla) and there was always something about those rubber suits and sometime crude animation that you just have to keep coming back to.  Godzilla has certain Jap42grown over the years with Rodan and the rest of them, but that Hiroshima metaphor that destroyed Tokyo for the first time in 1955 was still going strong here.

The Tea Ceremony that the staff of Skip City treated us to was something else entirely.  The bus picked us up from Kawaguchi and took the 30 minute or so trek to Tokyo where behind the National Museum we were ushered into a nearly 200 year old home that had been preserved and moved here for just this purpose.

Jap44

After the filmmakers were all seated in a circle on the tatami, the host explained the history and benefits of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu) to the quickly fidgeting crowd.  Fidgeting because most attempted to emulate the kneeling position of the host but soon abandoned it for more comfortable jap60sitting positions.  The tea ceremony began and you soon realized it was much more an exercise in meditation than an opportunity to have something to drink.  Each movement was designed and practiced from the 9th century on.  The placement of the utensils to the actual stirring of the tea was a slow and detailed process.  No tea bags here.  It was a nearly fluorescent green powder that was mixed in with hot water.  A strong and heavy tea that is fairly different than what one gets in the states.

Then each guest was given a chance to mix it themselves.  You had to use a special tool and stir it quick enough to get bubbles at the top of the bowl.  My forearms have seen their fair share of hammer curls but they were starting to lock up trying to get the tea right.  And though my own cup wasn’t quite as good as they one they gave me, they still gave me the thumbs up for my attempt.

Jap47

As we left, the host politely implored that we express and share the benefits of their tea to the rest of the world, as it was their belief that this was part of the longevity of their countries people.  A few of us, judging by the looks on their faces after drinking it, were not going to espouse the virtues of this tea but I am sure either way, they were walking away from it pretty impressed with what went into what went into their stomachs.

The bus picked us up out front of the museum and carried us through the rush hour traffic jam back to Kawaguchi.  I had another film to catch late that afternoon.  The falling sun was framed by Tokyo passing us by in the window.   The faces in the bus around me all focused on the image.  The kind you see in the last shot of a film.  Especially an indi film with all these silent contemplative faces and the the next thing you know….

Jap63