Monday, September 8, 2008
Full disclosure: Director Keir Moreano, whose new documentary Unspooled has already started on the festival circuit, is a friend of a friend -- someone I met once at a rooftop dinner party. I watched the trailer for Unspooled on his Facebook page and expressed interest in it; he offered me the chance to look at a copy and post a review on my blog. Fortunately for both of us, I enjoyed it, and what follows is my "review," though I'd rather think of it simply as writing about the movie.
Unspooled begins with what seems like a scene from a horror movie, in which a feral young woman covered in blood and dirt attacks a middle-aged man. Out of context, the clip is intriguing enough. When it returns later in Keir Moreano's gripping documentary, about the production of an ill-fated NYU student film called Bemoana, it represents something: the madness and rage that can set in when a well-intentioned project starts to unravel.
The writer and director of Bemoana, Maurice Singer, set out to create an update of "Little Red Riding Hood" that front-loaded the fairy tale's incestuous subtext. Instead of putting her in the clutches of a wolf, Singer decided to send his heroine, Ramona (Nicole Vicius), on a wintry getaway with her father, James (Larry Brustofski), who may or may not have molested her when she was a child. Though the concept shares a few themes with David Slade's 2005 revenge thriller Hard Candy, Singer's film -- scenes of which Moreano sprinkles throughout Unspooled -- owes a lot to the Grimm Brothers' original vision, including a snow-covered, rural setting and dark, murderous impulses waiting near the surface of a seemingly benign personality.
Bemoana was the talk of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts because its budget -- around $50,000, supplied by Singer's father -- was unprecedented within the program, and its Vermont location, seven hours from New York, was positively exotic compared to the in-city sites chosen by most Tisch students. Under the pressure of great expectations -- presumably from both NYU and his dad -- Singer headed into the heart of New England winter with talented actors and a sizable crew that included Moreano, who would be working on special effects and makeup.
The documentary that places viewers behind the scenes of an ultimately disastrous film shoot has become a genre of its own. 2002's Lost in La Mancha, which followed director Terry Gilliam as he attempted to make a movie based on Don Quixote, was a recent standout, and 1991's Hearts of Darkness, about Francis Ford Coppola's notoriously troubled Apocalypse Now shoot, is perhaps the genre's best-known (and finest) entry.
The key is not only to find a suitably disorganized film shoot, of course; it's also essential to edit the story of the shoot in such a way that the viewer gets a true sense of what it was like to be there -- and actually wants to stick around for more. Moreano and his editor, Mario Diaz, accomplish this tricky goal by structuring and pacing the documentary extremely well. When he wasn't designing a lifelike dead deer or burning the flesh off cow bones in order to paint fake blood on them, Moreano documented the Bemoana shoot with a handheld digital camera. Unspooled combines Moreano's footage with actual scenes from Bemoana and post-shoot interviews with the cast and crew.
Little by little, conflicts between crew members emerge, and the production's downward spiral accelerates. First, due to a lack of snow chains, some vital crew members get stuck in the deep Vermont snow; then the generator truck and equipment van take forever to arrive, further delaying the start of the shoot. Halfway through the production schedule, only 20 percent of the photography is done, and tensions begin to mount. Moreano narrates Unspooled, but he does so unobtrusively -- the mark of a director who knows he has a good story to tell and is humble enough to get out of its way. He also does an admirable job of revealing the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, so Unspooled becomes as educational as it is compelling.
Unfortunately, Gil Talmi's score isn't as subtle as the narration; it sounds very much like horror-movie music, which is understandable -- Bemoana was to be, after all, a kind of horror movie, and the "horrors" that plagued the production are the meat and potatoes of Unspooled. Still, the score ends up being distracting at times. The viewer should be able, without musical hints, to sense the thematic connection between madness on- and off-camera, and the sinister urgency of the music seems particularly incongruous during the interviews. That the score is the only such misstep, however, speaks volumes about the success of Unspooled as a whole.
Before Bemoana is a done deal, crew members have ground coffee with a 2-by-4 for lack of a proper grinder; everyone involved in the movie has eaten far too much barbecue; and the toilet has clogged in the way that only a toilet in a highly overpopulated Vermont chalet can. But what's really scary is Unspooled's main theme. As one crew member says: "It surprises me that anybody ever makes a movie." Indeed, when the cast and crew ultimately have to work 48 hours straight in order to finish on time, it's enough to give any would-be filmmaker pause.
Making a movie is such a collaborative process that the variables that can screw you over far outnumber the main factor -- "senseless hope," as Bemoana cinematographer Matthew Santo puts it -- that would draw you to such a project to begin with. And while Bemoana's fate becomes even grimmer following the shoot, the experience had a happy ending for Moreano: It inspired him to become a documentary filmmaker. It's a profession that appears to suit him, based on not only this film but also the praise that greeted his previous one, 2005's As the Call, So the Echo, which profiled Moreano's father, a doctor who traveled to Vietnam as a volunteer surgeon.
That filmmaking can be a torturous process isn't news. What makes Unspooled effective is that it documents a small production -- not Apocalypse Now, not a Gilliam movie -- and reveals that even when the stakes seem low, they're really not. Singer's father makes demands and pulls strings like a big-time producer, crew members clash as though their lives depended on the results, and lead actor Larry Brustofski, who plays Ramona's father, says sincerely of the shoot: "It was the heart of darkness."