A Lesson In Serendipity
Julie Schachter ©2002
In 1970, Rick Schmidt put his hands on a video camera for the first time. He was a 26-year old graduate student majoring in sculpture at the California College of Arts and Crafts (Oakland, California), when teacher Phillip Makanna asked if he'd like to sign up for a new video elective being offered. In fact, when another student asked Rick if he would consider giving up his reserved slot in the limited enrollment course, Rick off-handedly agreed. But then, before the student could disappear down the sidewalk, Rick changed his mind. Rick has since laughed about the irony of that close call, almost missing out on his whole career! And so it happened that Rick launched himself into "media."
The video class met; the assignment was, "Make a movie." At the end of that first day, Rick, armed with a loaded video camera, went to his ex-wife's house, focused the lens on her, and asked, "What went wrong?" The resulting 20-minute, single-take movie prompted strong reactions at the next class meeting. Rick must have seen very clearly right then, as his audience squirmed and blanched, the power of the camera as divining rod of true emotions, and the inescapable impact of unrehearsed, straight-from-the-heart storytelling. (It turned out most of Rick's first audience, students and teacher alike, had been divorced themselves in the not-so-distant past). Thirty years later, Rick was going to shoot in video again, preparing to make his fourteenth feature-length movie.
This new digital video (DV) production, Chetzemoka's Curse, would be the eighth collaborative movie produced by Feature Workshops, Rick's own daring invention - a kind of traveling, bare bones filmmaking studio based on his book, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices (Viking Penguin, 1988, 1995, 2000). The new revised 2000 edition of his book would be chock-full of information (and websites) about the Digital revolution, and he looked forward to practicing what he preached. Although his first five features had been shot in 16mm film, all reflected the same innovative, fresh, immediate "quirkiness" that has become his trademark. Regarding the new movie, he could assure anyone who asked that he had bought the tickets to fly in his experienced cameraman and co-producer (and son) Morgan Schmidt-Feng, and soundman Dave Nold, along with all the necessary production gear. But as to the question of exactly what story (plot!), with whom (actors!), and where (locations!) in town the small team would be shooting...that knowledge existed only as the faintest notion in Rick's mind. Fortunately Rick had experienced this unnerving, free-fall of moviemaking numerous times before, and was confident that something of value could be created out of this...serendipity.
Just two weeks before shooting was set to commence, a 23-year old woman named Maya Berthoud called Rick, leaving a message to say that she'd heard about the upcoming production and wanted to participate in any way possible. The two met for breakfast at a Port Townsend cafe one morning in early January after Rick had received a half-page of her "real-life story" (prerequisite for workshop participation). Rick says it only took a few seconds after seeing Maya in person to realize that FW productions had a strong, central character for the movie. "She's a heavy-weight," he told his wife when he arrived home. Rick was accustomed to trusting his intuition about these things. With Maya's strong presence on screen, he felt that the story would develop on its own (Maya ended up playing the character "Marie," a maid in a local hotel who is recovering from an ill-fated love affair). When the Feature Workshops production group, made up of five on-location writer/director collaborators (including Maya Berthoud, Morgan Schmidt-Feng, Dave Nold, Lawrence E. Pado, and Rick Schmidt), met for the first time over dinner, Rick carried with him a stack of legal papers with which he launches every FW production. "Signing documents convinces everyone this is real; at the end of ten days here we're going to have a serious product, a finished film that could actually go somewhere, get recognition, maybe even make money."
But besides the usual contracts, Rick now brought out a new agreement for everyone to consider. He asked the group to decide whether or not they wanted to sign a "Vow of Chastity" and make their feature in accordance with the implicit rules of DV filmmaking as laid down by the Danish group known as Dogme 95. All agreed to take on the added challenge of the Dogme demands, hoping that perhaps their movie could receive official certification from Denmark. (And indeed it has-- Chetzemoka's Curse has become only the second American "Dogme" movie in history, after Julien Donkey Boy, certified as "DOGME NO. 10"). Morgan's tripod and lights (forbidden by The Vow) would remain packed, and no props could be brought in to any set. The new restriction, which was a significant departure for Rick and his crew, was the prohibition of special editing effects, including fades/dissolves, and any laid-over music. All music/sound must be recorded only while scenes are being actually shot. By the time that first dinner was over, all had agreed to "go Dogme!" Rick's son Marlon (then 14 years old), from a second marriage, who had written a scene, "the flying cups," which he also directed, as well as editor Chris Tow, would both also sign the "Vow," making the group of Dogme 95 signers for Chetzemoka's Curse now total seven. Not only would they have the youngest Dogme director with Marlon Schmidt, but in the Sunday January 27, 2002 edition of The New York Times it would be determined that co-director Maya Berthoud was THE FIRST WOMAN DOGME DIRECTOR (see "Correction" in "Letters" section of Arts and Leisure). Little did Rick and his gang realize that their fortuitous decision would send Maya into the history books!
If you're wondering about the dynamics of making a movie start-to-finish in 10 days, here's an example of how it feels to be in the middle of Rick's filmmaking process:
When Sue Gillard, a nurse at the local Jefferson County hospital in Port Townsend, who had already told her real life story to the camera for "Curse," heard her husband Steve's report about being in additional scenes (he'd acted in several the previous day), she was jealous. Sue had become increasingly active in theatrical productions around town and wanted to be more involved in anything regarding performance. "Why Steve (not really the theatrical type...) and not me," she wondered aloud. She didn't know that the scenes shot had established a direct link between Steve and Marie, and that the whole production was moving inexorably toward her, the "wife" character. At some point in the afternoon on Day-3, Rick asked his production assistant to call Sue and tell her they were coming to shoot at her house. "When are they getting here?" Sue asked. When she was told, "They're on their way now," she flew into a panic. Her house was a mess, she wanted to straighten up, do the dishes... As it turned out, the climactic scene at the Gillards' house is a tour de force of spontaneity. Sue and her daughter Jessica were caught completely off guard by the arrival of "Marie," who, in front of a chagrined Steve, confronts the household with the fact of their plans to run off to Thailand together. Of course with their improvisational backgrounds (Jessica had been in high school acting workshops and her mother had been involved in several local theatrical productions), the real women of Steve's household performed their roles of outrage perfectly, enacting what it would be like to lose a father and husband in this dramatic way.
"It's always safer to let actors know as little as possible beforehand," Rick asserts. All the performers in Chetzemoka's Curse displayed an amazing ability to improvise on the barest suggestion and without knowing the direction a scene would take. Rick and Morgan have a knack of making people feel safe enough in front of the camera, so that they are able to accept its presence and reveal their innermost feelings. As a director, Rick has an uncanny sense of what to say to prompt them to reach deeper and when its appropriate to take this step. A gifted cinematographer himself, Rick has gradually turned over the shooting to son Morgan . A wise move - Morgan's intuitive camerawork makes it look simple to shoot these unrehearsed scenes on the fly, which are, to say the least, unpredictable. Recently, San Francisco DP Lloyd Francis has helped Rick shoot movies while Morgan is busy as Documentarian at Skywalker Ranch for George Lucas.
After witnessing more than one FW over the years, I have learned a good deal about the technique of Used-Car Prices movie-making, and even more about human nature. In all that time, I don't recall ever seeing anyone turn Rick down when asked to help out in some way, grant the use of a location, appear in a scene, or even tell a true-life story close-up and personal, right to the camera. And if anyone makes the mistake of thinking "Hollywood," and tries to exploit the situation or fears being taken advantage of, they usually relax when Rick explains he is doing this crazy, illogical thing, making a "no-budget" movie not for money at all, but for the sheer love of the art form.