09 April 2007

uber-indie: Date Number One

starring: John Stabb Schroeder, Julia Stemper, Jennifer Blakemore, Shervin Boloorian, Dele Williams, and Christine D. Lee
cinematography by: Sujewa Ekanayake[1]
written and directed by: Sujewa Ekanayake
$10,000/115 min/Washington, D.C.

I have this friend who married a karate instructor, which isn't by itself all that remarkable, except that it allows everyone else to refer to him as "the ninja" and give them Christmas presents of plastic throwing stars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and the like. It's one of those running jokes that is more amusingly self-referential than actually funny to anyone outside a radius of ten people.

To some extent, that's the feeling I get when I watch Sujewa Ekanayake's Date Number One, that I'm watching a self-referential film that's much more entertaining to the creators than it is to an uninvolved third party.

The film revolves around five first date vignettes, ranging from a ninja (punk musician John Stabb Schroeder) looking for love to the pursuit of a long-term threesome to a woman who uses air quotes to the point of overkill. All five contain the same lo-fi production values and are indistinguishable in terms of writing and stylistic techniques, which gives the film a certain cohesiveness that, depending on your point of view, may or may not work to the film's advantage. That is to say, you could certainly make an argument for each segment to have its own distinct look. Whether or not they should, I'm not sure.

But if I had to choose, I'd say they should, since one of the chief problems with Date Number One comes from the production style that's so consistently frustrating. Virtually every shot in the film is a loosely-constructed composition, sloppy and with an abundance of head room, where the camera seems completely unsure of where it wants to be, almost as if it wandered in off the street and happened upon these first dates. It reminds me of things I shot before I knew how to shoot things. As a stylistic choice used for a specific purpose, this isn't so bad, but without some fundamental framing and composition, the camera looks disinterested, like it can't be bothered to get in place for a two shot that does something as simple as have both actors in the frame. So, what you get is a two shot where the ninja is in the frame, but his date is just out of it and the camera has to pan over slightly to catch her dialogue, at which point the ninja is out of the frame. Rarely does the camera seem to make any strong, artistically-driven choices that further the story, nor does it do something as simple as backing up a couple feet and having the confidence to stay with a master shot. There's a distinct feeling that the film might at any moment get fed up with these characters and move on to something else, but not in way that invests the audience. Rather, it gives the impression that if the film doesn't really care, why should we?

But maybe the camera doesn't care because the characters haven't given it anything to care about. With a few exceptions (Jennifer Blakemore comes to mind), the performances are wooden and stilted, the sort of thing you get in student films where the filmmaker recruits actors from the football team, and the script feels like a first draft of something that might eventually become substantial and inventive. The actors play it like they've just recently memorized the text and large chunks of the dialogue have the feel of something inspired either by a textbook (most of the dialogue on quantum physics) or a soapbox ("...the enemies of choice are not interested in dialogue and discovery of new and better perspectives. They want women to go back to 'their place' so their neo-conservative, God-fearing, moral majority crap...").

Clearly this is a cast comprised of friends and cohorts willing to give up their free time to get the film finished, and it's hard to fault a no-budget film for going in that direction, but when the performances range from adequate to embarrassing, there has to be a better approach. You could, for example, limit the size of your cast or make a film that isn't as heavily dependent on dialogue, thus minimizing the impact of the performances. But relying on a large cast of non-actors in a film with long stretches of conversation is a recipe for disaster. A good cast can hide a lot of awkward scripting, but an inexperienced cast with anything less than a great script is lethal.

Sadly, the script for Date Number One is littered with cliche and exposition, constantly running afoul of the mandate to "show, don't tell", is mostly devoid of subtext, contains dialogue that reads better than it sounds, and you can see most of the jokes coming far in advance. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good screenplay. The title cards don't help, interrupting the film to tell us things we don't need to know, like that the bartender is the ninja's twin (Why do we need to know this? Why does it matter? Why are we seeing this actor again?), or telling us a proverb seconds before the actors talk about it. Such is the mark of a film either completely unsure of itself or struggling to incorporate audience feedback.

Part of the problem with Date Number One has to do with the sequence of events. The first two segments combine for over half of the 115 minute running time and both segments are at least ten minutes longer than they need to be. So, by the time we get to the second half of the film (which contains segments three and five, the two strongest), our patience is worn thin, especially by the ninja segment, which fills the first thirty minutes with what is easily the film's weakest performance. Trimming that first hour to something more manageable would do wonders.

But that alone wouldn't make it a good film, just a shorter one with fewer problems. What it needs is some harsh re-writes and a cast with a modicum of acting experience. There's no shortage of aspiring actors in the world more than willing to be in a film. Casting people just because they happen to be your friends and have free time is counter-productive and undermines the end product, especially when there are better alternatives willing and able to do the job. Similarly, it never hurts to get a director of photography who will do more than use the camera's auto focus and exposure. Such are the little things that a casual observer won't mind, but others will, and it severely limits the potential audience. There's value to doing everything yourself, but there's usually more value in seeing if there's people around who can just as easily do it better. This film would have been better served with the latter.

[1] Sujewa has been very helpful in the early stages of the uber-indie project, both with ideas and getting the word out to the masses. My short film L'Attente (2006) recently screened with Date Number One.

You can check out Date Number One on IMDB, MySpace, or the Official Webpage. You can read the various writings of Sujewa Ekanayake at his blog.

Got a film you'd like to submit for the uber-indie project? Go here for details. You can also read these reviews at TalkingMoviezzz.com.


The Sujewa said...

Thanks for checking out the film & writing about it Lucas. People interested in other opinions on the film, of which there are several, can visit my site: http://www.wilddiner.com/. The 5 other reviewers who reviewed the film prior to Lucas liked it a lot, and, so far, close to 500 audience members have enjoyed the film. But, as Lucas's review shows, the movie is not for some people, and that's pretty much how it always is, with every movie.

Also, there is no one way to shoot a movie or act in a movie, new filmmakers should always feel free to try new things out, regardless of critical opinion. Cinematography that does not look like work in other movies is totally cool, same with sound, and pretty much all other aspects of a movie. Of couse with that approach comes the risk of alienating people who prefer a certain look. Both the camera work on Scumrock & Lawrence of Arabia are acceptable, each film has made different choices. That's at least my approach to things. My next movie will be shot pretty similar to how Date Number One was shot, except I hope to avoid an exposure problem I had in one shot in DNO; but if such unexpected tech stuff ends up happening, that's totally cool, as long as the audience can follow the story.

- Sujewa

lucas mcnelly said...

Sujewa's right, but I should point out, in the interest of accuracy, that the exposure problem occured several times over the course of the film, and was not limited to just one shot, although, it may have been the sun going behind a cloud (but the shots were interiors)

The Sujewa said...

true, the exposure problem does come up in a couple of shots/scenes, but the only scene with that problem that bugged me enough to consider taking the shot out of the movie was when Sunshine & Kamal are talking in Kamal's apt. But, in the end, after checking with paying audience members, I kept the scene in 'cause it is a funny & essential scene. i am totally cool w/technical oddities & "flaws" as long as most of the target audience & others are able to enjoy the movie. on an uber-indie project, a no budget feature, it is difficult to have a totally Hollywood or indiewood look/sound/feel (not impossible, but difficult), and most audience members are cool with it. what they don't get in slickness they get in originality/a new voice/new ideas.
of course there are cases, as can be seen by Lucas's review above, where an audience member gets noting much useful out of a movie.
Hopefully those instances will be few with DNO.

- Sujewa

johanna said...

As an independent filmmaker: a writer, an actress, a director, a producer, you name it, even music and voice over, i see the absolute sense of Lucas' words regarding evaluating and using others' talents; but as a comprehensive reader of Lucas' blog since its inception, I feel a mild onus regarding the uber-indie project.

Those of you who have been following along probably already know or at least can trace the thought processes that produced the project, and could probably relay that the experience is meant to broaden film horizons, not narrow them. Like the Nouvelle Vague's early writings, it is an original attempt to explore and reflect upon every facet of filmmaking in order to learn about it and hence be able to improve upon it or add something new. Had Bazin's crew been solely interested in distribution, we would have inherited a considerably less useful, less interesting slice of culture from that particular sector. Thankfully, they were not.

It should be understood by first-time readers and various other lurkers that a Truffaut or even a Jarmusch is not simply born any more than he is made overnight, and that this project takes into account many dimensions. My favorite dimension is that of compassion, I think. That idea that a critic can become more compassionate and more able to really aid filmmakers with the filmmaking process through criticism.

Not every filmmaker who sends a cut to a project such as this will find that -- how did sujewa put it? -- useful, but it shoud be recognized that Lucas' only real recompense is greater understanding of the filmmaking process himself. Whether or not participants in the uber-indie project can and will be able to share that with him is entirely up to them. Think of it as DIY learning.

Hopefully, the number of people who are unable for whatever reason to take a cue from someone's careful thoughts, time, and energy will be small as people join who recognize the value of the approach and who, more importantly, are not too full of themselves nor blinded by the potential money in distribution to be receptive to good, informed feedback.

As someone who largely lacks a peer group in her daily travels, especially people who know film and are interested, I see this as priceless.

Warmest wishes, Lucas.

lucas mcnelly said...

to an extent, i look at it like this: if i had a choice between the impact of an uber-indie review making the film 20% more successful (sp?) or making the filmmaker's next film 5% better, I'd choose the latter almost every time. Because I think the latter will be much more successful, not just for this film, but for every film the filmmaker makes.

sure, that's something of a vaccum scenario, but i think the point gets across.

that doesn't mean I won't do whatever I can to help promote films to everyone I can, but that's separate from the reviews.

lucas mcnelly said...

of course, if the filmmaker is pretty fully formed already, that changes everything. Matt Zoller Seitz comes to mind.

johanna said...

yeah, someone like that who has achieved that sort of distinctive style or at least an impression of a style emerging* can only really be critiqued against his or her own work and the potential it portrays, living up to it, etc.

with something like that, where i've read a couple of reviews that give me a sense that the film is well made without telling me whether or not i'll like it, i dogear the filmmaker's name in my mind and wait for the next film; and, if i'm sparked enough by the next film, it's at that point that i go back and look at earlier work

sometimes it turns out that a director was not really the strength of the first film at all, but the cinematographer and perhaps the strength of the writing carried it critically. there tends to be less instance of that in indie filmmaking than in more commercial work, but it definitely happens, although as much as an indie filmmaker will cripple a work by insisting on writing and directing when a writer or a director (or both) should really be brought in to do the job**.

so what i end up doing is looking at that next work and trying to get a feel for whether it fits into the same standard the first was compared to, or if it tries, at least, for more. and i go from there.

*i've only read a few reviews of Home, one of which had several screen grabs and one or two spoilers that i've forgotten over time.

**there was a good commentary and parody of this in a '90s indie film, The Search for One-eye Jimmy about a young documentary filmmaker who starts out making this insightful film and ends up looking for "Jimmy" who, it is later revealed, just turns out to be schmo who got drunk and passed out in a basement.

johanna said...


that should be "although not as much as an indie filmmaker will cripple..."

Anonymous said...

Just saw Date Number One in Maryland, loved it.

From some reviews by experienced filmmakers & reviewers (who make good movies & write great reviews):

"The film is about as charming as they come...presents a world in which cultures don't clash, they mesh. It's refreshing to see characters who all appear to have a natural optimism, as opposed to the typical indie-film predilection for bitterness and cruelty. "
- Michael Tully, Rotterdam & SXSW film festivals selected filmmaker & indieWIRE blogger

"I found the characters and the premise sexy, sexy, sexy."
- Jerry Brewington, Hollywood Is Talking blog, on Story 2 of Date Number One

"...witty...often inventive...and, even better, airy: characters are given time and space to spell out their views...views that never bear the artificial markings of a Hollywood screenwriter's compulsion to reduce them to sound-bites."
- David Hudson, Editor, GreenCine Daily blog

"FIVE really entertaining, fully realized romantic interludes...a shamefully rare achievement"
- Tom Kipp, Seattle audience member, former film reviewer for Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger

"Heartfelt...poignant...I loved it!"
- Jon Moritsugu, award winning filmmaker
"...somehow, someway, in the end, the love of the characters, the positiveness of the film, and Sujewa’s disregard for conventions wins you over. The act of making this film wins you over. There is only a positive through line in this film, and that is rare to see, especially when dealing with characters in their late to early thirties."
- Amir Motlagh, director of the popular '04 Atom Films' short Still Lover & upcoming feature Whale

"Date Number One is quite funny...twentysomethings and occasional thirtysomethings looking for romance recall Richard Linklater's philosopher slackers and Jim Jarmusch's minimalist attention to conversation...also a subtle, thoughtful film...might be understood as the anti-Crash depiction of life in the city...depicts a comfortably multi-ethnic community...I'd happily recommend it."
- Chuck Tryon, media professor & blogger, The Chutry Experiment blog