[Editor’s Note: Today is the birth of what I already believe will be a popular feature here at IONCINEMA.com. Our goal is simple: get into the mindset and put ourselves in the shoes of debut independent filmmakers as they embark on the creatively ambitious, professionally and artistically stimulating process of realizing a first or sophomore film. I’ve titled this monthly series “In the Pipeline” – as it corresponds to the notion of future filmmaking talent to watch for and it identifies film projects that are in the process of being instilled in the collective movie-going public psyche.
Dabbling in auteur theory, demonstrating the lineage of past projects and shedding light into the creative process and possible pre-production jitters, we hope you enjoy this new series of personalized interviews.]
David Ondaatje wants to scare you. In the edge-of-your-seat, heart pounding, what’s-about-to-happen kind of way. David Ondaatje also wants to move you. In the emotionally compelling, heartwarming, will-she-or-won’t-she kind of way. The first time feature filmmaker behind The Lodger has set the bar high with his adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1912 novel, which was the basis for Hitchcock’s 1927 same-titled film. With four successful shorts under his belt, Hope Davis and Alfred Molina on the screen, Michael Mailer in the producer’s chair and David Armstrong behind the camera, Ondaatje has every reason to believe his goal will be met.
Lowndes’s novel tells the true story of a woman the author met at a dinner party who claimed Jack the Ripper was staying at her boarding house. Intrigued by the idea, Ondaatje has taken this premise and set it in modern day Los Angeles. Pulling his inspiration from Hitchcock’s adaptation and the dark visual style of fellow directors David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky, Ondaatje has fleshed out the characters, given them lines to say (Hitchcock’s The Lodger is silent) and room to grow. The result? “A beautifully romantic tension between characters,” says the director. I spoke with Mr. Ondaatje after his first week of production and despite his raspy voice (the product of an all night shoot), he sounds excited and surprisingly calm about directing his first feature.
Do you think you were prepared to undertake a feature film? How much preproduction did you do prior to shooting?
Coming from a less structured world of making short films, documentaries, and writing, I had been used to being a little more in control of my time. Once Alfred Molina and Hope Davis signed on to do the film, we were fast-tracked to start shooting in about three weeks. While our preproduction period was particularly short, I had been ready to go for a few months. I am told most first time feature directors are generally over prepared in those areas they are able to prepare…storyboards, shot lists, etc. I suppose this provides some compensation for one’s relative lack of experience in other areas, like knowing what the necessary coverage is for a scene – the master shot, close ups, medium shots? I was certainly guilty of all that too. I was definitely as ready as I could be.
How were you over prepared?
I think it’s a common practice for first time feature directors to generate lengthy shot lists…to over plan. I not only had a shot list for every scene; I had storyboarded the whole movie. (Click on exclusive storyboard artwork below). I had been living with this project for a little over a year and a half so I had many of the more visual sequences already mapped out, both in my head and on paper.
Do you feel that you’ve had to let some of your plans go because of timing? Is there anything that you’ve had to cut loose while shooting?
Yes. I think that’s part of the organic nature of making a movie. I think by necessity you have to make adjustments as you go. You’re always battling the clock and the money available, but at the same time it’s a living, breathing thing. First you write the script, then you go through polishing and rewrites, then you go and board it all out and create your shot lists, but then you see the locations and suddenly you have to revise everything. And on the day of filming you’re presented with a whole new set of realities – limited time, or actors interpreting the material in a fresh and exciting way you never anticipated. When you’re shooting, the whole project comes alive and so you need to adapt and try not to get locked into something you thought of two months ago. So I think that preparation is important up to a point, but then you actually have to let it go and allow the scene to evolve organically.
How has working on a feature been different from working on shorts? Do you feel as if you have more or less creative control?
I’m incredibly lucky, not only to have a great crew and cast, but to be involved as the writer/director and also as a producer. The film’s financiers, Stage 6 Films, have been behind us completely, giving us the go-ahead to tell the story the way we want to tell it. In that way, I suppose it’s like we’re making an independent movie with the backing of an established company. I’m very lucky to have been afforded that degree of control.
With your screenplays Paris Underground, The Doctor is Sick and now The Lodger, it seems as if adaptations are your thing? What draws you to this medium?
I enjoy working from a pre-existing canvas: a book or period in history from which I can tell an emotional story. I look for a little-known historical event or something in a book which moves me – something heroic, sad, terrifying, or an egregious injustice. In The Lodger, it’s a wonderful evolving conflict between fear and excitement which Ellen, the landlady (Hope Davis), experiences after she invites an unusual stranger (Simon Baker) into her home.
Still from: Waiting for Dr. MacGuffin (1998)
I have been a longtime fan of Hitchcock and in many ways am still a student of a certain kind of filmmaking – in telling the subjective story. More than simply “The Master of Suspense,” Hitchcock was a great cinematic innovator; a pioneer in communicating visually what his characters were feeling and thinking rather than simply what they were doing through their physical actions. Our goal in The Lodger is to tell Ellen’s emotional story in a very visual, dynamic way; to communicate her fear, anxiety and excitement cinematically, which for a filmmaker is a great opportunity.
Still from: Undressing Hitchcock
What is it about the film that will speak to modern audiences?
I think for any film to be successful there has to be a strong emotional story. All the visual wizardry in the world alone is not going to sustain an audience for two hours. Our film will, of course attempt to provide both, but at the end of the day, the emotional story needs to be compelling. I’m not sure how to classify the movie – I suppose it’s a neo-noir urban thriller. Our goal is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats; to keep them interested and afraid and excited and wanting more. The Lodger has two parallel plot lines which ultimately converge – in the first storyline, a woman invites an eccentric stranger into her house at the same time a series of murders takes place in the neighborhood. In the second storyline, two West Hollywood detectives (Alfred Molina as Chandler, and Shane West as Street) race to solve those crimes before the elusive killer disappears. Layering the two different stories on top of each another, cutting back and forth as the tension (and danger) mounts should keep people interested.
How did you start the initial writing process? Was it a matter of re-reading the book and watching the film on loop?
Well I was familiar with many of Hitchcock’s films and it occurred to me that the underlying premise of The Lodger would make a great story set in present-day Los Angeles – a woman inviting a stranger into her house and the dynamic of being both drawn to him and afraid of him. As a writer and filmmaker not being too bound by the original material is liberating…take only what you like and move on. A book and a movie are very different animals. I’m not sure how well I would do adapting a literary masterpiece. I’d be worried that making the best movie possible would necessitate mucking up the novel.
What is your shooting style like? Do you work closely with the camera or are you more focused on the performances?
Speaking from my limited experience, you have to know the visual story you’re telling while also working with the actors to capture the emotional tenor of the story. I am very lucky to have such an amazingly talented cast. My goal is to reach the point with each actor where, after a few conversations, they know their characters better than I do. Once an actor has completely embraced his/her character, I let them go with it. Ideally an actor becomes more involved and attached and knowledgeable about their character than even I am…and when that happens, the character comes alive on the screen. Hope Davis has embraced her character, Ellen, in a way I could never have imagined. It’s an unbelievable performance; it’s one of the best performances I have ever seen her give.
Have you had any emotional moments on set so far?
Several. We’ve shot seven days, so we’re a little less than a third of the way through the movie. Due to Hope Davis’ schedule, we’re filming her scenes first. There have been a few instances when I’ve worried that a line I’ve written might not play right, but then I watch Hope perform and suddenly the line and the character come alive – with far greater meaning and drama than I had ever imagined. One great moment took place a few days ago when, after shooting a particularly tense scene wrought with romantic overtones between Ellen (Hope Davis) and the lodger (Simon Baker), a few people watching the monitor spontaneously erupted in applause. The performances were incredible. Working with talented actors who are able to bring unexpected definition and life to one’s writing is an incredible experience.
What is your creative background like? How did you get into film?
I suppose I’ve been a closet director most of my life, having studied film a little in college and have worked with video and film for years. I’ve been told that I have experienced far too much of life through the eyepiece a camera. It’s been a long and meandering path to get here, but throughout it all I’ve generally been either writing or filming something. I suppose I’ve been telling visual stories in one way or another for over 20 years and now that I have the opportunity to do it with a professional crew and an amazing cast is a dream come true.
What is the best part about filmmaking?
To have been involved in all stages of the process from coming up with the story concept, writing the screenplay, financing the film, attracting cast, and now filming has been enormously satisfying. It’s incredible how the project has evolved and blossomed with each different stage. To go from sitting alone in your room staring at a computer screen to being on set with seventy-five people watching as some of the world’s greatest actors deliver the lines you wrote…it’s pretty incredible.
What is the worst part about filmmaking?
Trying to have my cake and eat too. Notwithstanding the cast and crew we’ve been able to attract, for the magnitude of the story we’re trying to tell we still have a relatively low budget. There are little adjustments and compromises you inevitably have to make along the way. You don’t always get all the coverage you want for every scene. We’re getting the story we want, the performances are great and the look is outstanding, but at the same time if we had ten more filming days I’d love to cover certain scenes a little more, get a few more inserts, use the crane for a few more days…there’s always something, I suppose. At the same time, having to economize had caused us to be more creative, so who knows if we’d even be better off.
What advice would you offer to other first time feature filmmakers?
Perseverance. I love hearing that everyone passed on Chinatown before it was made. Most of the time when someone passes on a script there’s a good chance they haven’t even read it. So getting discouraged after that hardly makes sense. Keep banging on doors, keep writing, keep making short films, keep doing what you love. But most of all, make it for yourself. If you love it, then chances are someone else will too.