Sally Potter

Small or Large

RAGE has had to make its way into the world against the prevailing view of what constitutes ‘cinema’. Releasing it on mobile phones and the internet sparked enormous interest but also provoked fear and hostility in some parts of the film industry. And financially speaking it has not been an easy ride. So it is particularly exciting that RAGE has been nominated for a WEBBY award.

To know that those people who inhabit the world of the web with confidence can appreciate what we were doing aesthetically (images designed to work small or large) and politically (looking at the ethics of the internet, branding and so on) and can relate to the sheer exhileration I felt about exploring ways of telling a story that embraced both the new technology and the reality of how many people are now experiencing the moving image…. is a vindication both of the decision to make and distribute the film in the way we did, and of the trust given me by such wonderful actors.

We are up against films funded by Sony, HBO and others, so for the ‘People’s Choice’ award we are dependent on votes from supporters of the film and what it represents.

Watch the trailer below:

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Hidden Team

Given that the balance of characters in RAGE is a mix of the visible, familiar faces of a visible industry and – importantly -the less familiar, but equally necessary, hidden others who work in the background, I think it is time to redress the balance concerning the team who made this film.

The shooting conditions that have been described elsewhere - the actor, sound-recordist (Jean-Paul Mugel) and myself (as camera operator) working as an intimate trio behind a screen on the set - of course leaves out many others both in the immediate environment and also in post production.

Key players in this hidden team include Steve Fierberg who designed the basic lighting set-up and then subtly adjusted it for each new actor. He also watched the monitor on the other side of the screen and both encouraged my camera operating and criticized it when necessary. His enthusiasm for the whole project nourished us all and his readiness to step back from the immediate shooting process was an act of great humility for a DP. He became my second pair of eyes and watched everything with great precision and focus.

Marina Draghici and Es Devlin (who divided the work of costume design between them) helped to create the characters through their clothes. They found ways of begging, borrowing and improvising garments that were the only visual clues to the characters’ identities and had to be (in this particular imaginary setting) absolutely right. They were often inspired.

Jimmy Barnett, who had come to Adventure Pictures as his first job straight from school, had gradually become my right-hand man at the laptop; his fluency with computers and his touch-typing kept him close to the word and the image at all times right through to the live virtual premiere.

Mike Manzi at Adventure Pictures organized, telephoned and emailed our way through the maze of practical arrangements and financial agreements that are the underpinning of every feature film, and coordinated with the New York team to make it all happen.

Andy Fierberg, who had co-produced YES, once again stepped into the breach in New York, brought in the first crucial investors (including the genial Bob Heistand) and kept his New York company (Vox) and our relatively minimal production company in London in a version of harmony and efficiency under economically stressful conditions.

Some individuals came in for a day or two, notably the key makeup artists (including the great Morag Ross who was responsible for Jude Law’s hair and makeup).

I spent a productive summer with Daniel Goddard, who also edited YES, cutting and re-cutting the film until it found its form. He also skillfully graded the image and built up the soundtrack. We discovered how far one can now take a film in the cutting room. In the past, the image only achieved its look much later at the lab, and the sound was only a guide, but now it is technically possible to get the film close to its desired final result in the quiet and focused atmosphere of the cutting room.

Vincent Tulli, who had also mixed the sound on YES, took our soundtracks , ‘cleaned’ them and skillfully placed them in auditory space in a small mixing studio. We both found this a more challenging soundtrack to balance than many, given its’ crucial role in telling the story.

Digimages in Paris provided the opportunity to make the final grade on a big screen, and it is there, working long hours, that the characters’ skin-tones and the colours in the background were finally ‘fixed’ and the digital masters and a 35mm negative were created.

There were many other individuals along the way, including production coordinators, assistants, runners and a whole new team to organize the most recent premiere events in London and New York. And of course Karol Marestko and the Babelgum team who have made it possible to take the film out into the world on cell-phones and in the process have begun to reinvent distribution and exhibition.

In pre-production two of my most crucial collaborators were casting directors. I have worked with Irene Lamb since Orlando; we are as one in the long process of finding the right actors to approach. We were joined by Heidi Levitt in Los Angeles and between us went on to assemble my dream cast.

The person who worked most tirelessly behind the scenes, from start to finish, was producer Christopher Sheppard. RAGE is the fifth feature we have worked on together (the first being Orlando). It is his creativity, ingenuity and persistence that makes the difference between things happening and not happening at all. Those moments when it all seems impossible, there is no money in the bank, and no-one seems interested, are the moments when a particular kind of brilliance and stamina are called for and he has it. He somehow holds it all together. Once the film was complete it was he who pushed through the final release strategy and organized the virtual premiere, against all odds.

I have left other people out who also have done vital work on this film. The list really does go on and on, even on a film as minimal as this one. Cinema is a collaborative medium and we are truly interdependent beings at every stage of the process. The director and actors become the visible ones in the eyes of the world but couldn’t do it without the others.

But it is precisely because the list is so long (look at any end-credits, even of small low-budget films), that it becomes difficult to keep everyone’s labours fully credited along the way. It is a sort of insider knowledge.

I feel blessed to work with such generous committed individuals and want – for the record - to thank them here, even if they have not been mentioned by name.

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Wild Night

It was a wild night on the Southbank in London. There was something in the air that felt, perhaps, close to the edginess of those participating in the first broadcast of live television, or one of the earliest projections of film with sound.

An expectation of technical disaster, strange lapses of timing, an exhilarating mixture of the smooth and the raw, smoke and mirrors.

I loved the actors for their humility and their willingness to take on the challenge. Simon Abkarian and Riz Ahmed were both on stage with me for the Q and A session after the projection of RAGE, while Lily Cole, Eddie Izzard and Jude Law were present in huge grainy close-up on Skype.

Jude was participating from a room backstage at a theatre in New York, looking a little shy, somehow, and thoughtful, wearing his headset and answering questions about gender and creation carefully and articulately in the moments before going on stage as Hamlet.

Eddie, at a mystery location, faced technical challenges as echo upon echo drowned out his words. Eventually he resorted to holding up a big sheet of paper; his improvisatory skills making him the comic master of the moment. (The techno gremlins were resolved a little later).

Lily, looking serious and talking eloquently (also in New York, straight from a fashion shoot), was the living antitheses of most people’s stereotype of the ditzy model.

Francine Stock was the seamless MC, fearlessly dealing with glitches and holding it all together. And of course there were many invisible others behind the scenes who had worked tirelessly for months to pull the whole thing off.

Live interaction of this kind is a great leveller. I experience it all as the upside of globalisation; a force that - at its worst -can destroy the local and individual, or - at its best - can be the opposite : giving us the opportunity to unite in commonality and intimacy.

RAGE Q&A

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The Box

We had the NYC premiere of RAGE at ‘The Box’, a downtown club and historic architectural gem that has something of the feel of a Wild West bar and brothel, with an upper gallery, dim lighting, private booths and a racy reputation.

The image, projected onto a screen above the small stage, looked crisp and vibrant, the sound was full and intense, and the scale of the picture felt right….not too big and not too small.

As the event was more of a launch party for the cell-phone release of the film than a conventional premiere, and given the intricate, shadowy layout of the space, people were wandering around talking and looking at episode one on their iPhones as the film was playing. The whole experience was entirely unlike a reverent cinematic premiere; the pleasingly chaotic atmosphere somehow felt refreshing.

Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Bob Balaban, Patrick Adams, John Leguizamo and Jude Law - beloved members of the ensemble cast- mingled and wandered too.

Later, at a party, people who had not been at the screening could be seen clustered in small groups around their cell-phones, watching, listening, and discussing…I felt I was seeing the beginning of a new collective viewing experience – a sentiment echoed by the journalists in my first day of interviews here. Their excitement at the idea of shaking up the whole lumbering machine of film distribution and exhibition and seeing the cautious, conservative cultural gatekeepers sidelined for the first time, was palpable.

Many of my interviewers sensed something gently historic about the moment, and I felt a vindication of all the ‘barefoot filmmaking’ decisions that we have made along the line.

One recurring question, however, given that RAGE is being put out free on cellphones and the internet was ‘But how will you make any money?” My laughter seemed to baffle them.

The answer is the unknown quantity of DVD sales, of course; the only way of making our money back in this release strategy – an entirely risky leap of faith. But I realized that this may be a moment where the smaller independent producers can be the courageous ones, for in effect we have nothing to lose.

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From Zero

There is no zero point in writing a script, of course. Just the illusion of nothingness before the something appears. But confronting emptiness, a kind of void-state, whilst sometimes terrifying (will anything ever happen?) is also exhilarating.

A long view opens up, where all seems possible. Not just fresh starts, freed from habits of all kinds, personal and professional, but even the horizon itself changes.

After the long haul of a film (never less than three years in my experience) one needs to catch up, find out who you have become whilst immersed in the journey. Sometimes you can take the film with you as you change, but with others you must stay true to the original concept even if you feel you have moved on.

RAGE is an example of a film that has morphed continuously during its long evolution (I wrote the first draft after completing ORLANDO). Now, at last, its entry into the world has been made consistent with its themes and storyline.

A boy-child, who we know only as Michelangelo but remains unseen and unheard, interviews his subjects with a cellphone and posts his material on the internet over a period of seven increasingly catastrophic days. Now the film itself will appear, for the first time, on cellphones, in episodes day by day for a week (and then on the internet.)

Amazingly, it seems this has never been done before.
It is nice to be the first to take the leap, but even more gratifying is that there is a unity between the story itself and how it is released.

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Money?

There is an interesting new post on the forum from ‘EasyLife26’. The writer had seen the Reuters TV report from Berlin about RAGE and responded with “Naked Cinema?...I just don’t find it very interesting or justifiable that ‘only’ a million dollars was spent on this film. That doesn’t impress me.’

The post ended with the question: ‘Must art steal from life in order to enrich it?”

The writer asked many serious questions with ethical and moral implications. As the budget figures for films are often quoted but rarely analysed or discussed, I was grateful for the opportunity to try to explain how it is that a relatively minimalist film like RAGE, considered ultra-low budget by Hollywood standards, can nevertheless end up costing $1 million.

I have now added my reply to the writer’s questions below:

“Thank you very much for this post. Money is so often the root of all divisiveness and misunderstanding, and film budgets are no exception. I agree with you that at first sight the sum of one million dollars seems an obscene amount to speak of in the same sentence as ‘naked’ cinema. But I am grateful for the opportunity to disrobe the myth of what this figure actually means, how it breaks down, and what the realities of this way of working entail.

I do believe transparency is a good goal where money is concerned, so I am going to try and be as clear, detailed and transparent as possible.

First, the million dollar figure is the true cost of finishing the film, not the actual sum raised for it. (I will explain this in a minute). There was not a magical pot of a million dollars waiting that could be spent any way I chose. (Yes, people I know and love are suffering, though not only financially, and one of my dreams, if I could become rich, would be the joy of being able to give money away to them. It is a recurring fantasy.)

But making RAGE was not like that. In common with every film of mine, the struggle to raise finance for it was arduous. We struggled for some months to bring the budget down as low as possible, to follow a ‘no waste’ principle, to be as joyfully minimalist in the process of its making as the script intended the film to be as a viewing experience. We borrowed money to finance the development. And eventually took out a second mortgage on my flat in London in order to get it off the ground. Then we packed our bags and flew (economy class) to New York where a private individual who had never been involved in movies before had enjoyed the script and decided, after a long meeting over lunch, to invest $300,000. A second person invested $25,000. Between them this was just enough to cover the actual cost of shooting the film. This figure covered the hard costs of renting a small amount of equipment, a studio (a small space in Harlem) renting a tiny apartment (found on the internet on Craigslist), paying each of the fourteen actors the same equity/SAG minimum for just two days work each, and the small crew at the union minimum rates. The two producers and myself deferred our fees.

Let me digress for a moment about the realities of ‘deferred’ fees. I have done this on every film except ‘The Man Who Cried.’ It means that during the working process itself you don’t get paid, and then, in theory, when the film is sold, following payment of the sales agent’s commission and expenses, and whatever repayment has been negotiated with your investors, you get your fee, or part of it, somewhere down the line. But with YES, on which I worked fulltime for four years (and deferred my fees) I have yet to earn a penny. The ‘expenses’ of sales agents and distributors and payments to other investors had eaten up all the worldwide income from the film before my fees were paid. If the film had been a spectacular box office and financial success, then the situation would be different. But the reality of "independent" filmmaking, outside of mainstream genres, is that this very rarely happens. In the meantime, most film financiers now expect filmmakers to defer part or all of their fees, especially on low-budget productions. After a while this accumulates as a form of personal debt from which it is hard to escape. I have accepted it as the cost of working on films which are for me a personal, poetic and political necessity. And it is not the kind of thing one advertises, as for most people the idea of sympathy for the financial woes of filmmakers is, understandably, a laughable concept.

So, back to RAGE.
Having decided to go for it and make the film for the cash available without exploiting anyone – except, arguably ourselves - (though depending on the generosity and commitment of the actors and crew to work for very much less than they could earn elsewhere) we had, nevertheless, a film in the digital can and a theoretical budget for finishing it. This is where the million dollar figure comes in. On paper, if everyone was paid, including the costly post-production laboratory expenses of taking a digitally filmed movie through to 35mm print and commercially projectable digital format (the varying realities of current international cinema projection now demand both), with the sound mixed in a large enough studio to know what it would sound like in a big cinema, we arrived at the sum of a million dollars, more or less.

In the interests of transparency I can tell you that that sum includes my deferred fees of $50,000 for writing the script and $50,000 for directing. This represents about three full time years of work (plus the unpaid publicity tours which independent films depend on to generate press coverage.) At an average of $30,000 a year this works out at about the same as my assistants and less than the production managers. However, because of the deferment structure I have not yet received a cent of either fee, and neither have the two producers whose fees are, on paper, $50,000 each. On the contrary, I have borrowed on my apartment in London, which already has a hefty mortgage, in order to complete the film, and so am in personal debt to the tune of $175,000. This is described as the filmmakers’ ‘investment’ in the film (deferred fees are not counted as investment).The UK Film Council will eventually have contributed $300,000 (they committed in principle to join in the financing just after the first private investor, but the complexities of finalising the deal and completing the paperwork that UKFC requires meant that we had finished the edit before any cash appeared.) The issue of ‘cash-flow’ in independent cinema is often complicated. It seems that almost invariably filmmakers end up borrowing to get things done and pay the bills.

So, to recap, the breakdown of costs of RAGE falls as approximately $325,000 to shoot and $450,000 to edit, grade, sound mix and “deliver” the film (in the multiple formats which sales agent routinely require) plus $225,000 in (100% deferred) producer, director and production company fees.

It is hard to imagine how it could have been made any cheaper. When I started making films we all worked for nothing and I scrounged out-of-date film-stock and free editing time in cutting rooms at night; I also printed my own early 16mm films. ‘Thriller’, for example, cost about $3000 made in this way. But there are only so many times one can ask for absolute favours from friends. Crew members have rent to pay, families to feed. I think filmmaking is a serious job and a worthwhile contribution to the lives of others. I think people deserve to be paid. That includes me, of course, but it seems that what Hollywood producers call ‘passion projects’ (seriously, they do) necessitate personal sacrifice from the initiators…a kind of devotional attitude.

Arguably, one could make a film cheaper by doing it digitally from start to finish, involving almost no-one else, and putting it out on the internet. This may be the way forward for some types of film, and we discussed it as a strategy for RAGE. (It remains part of the plan). However there is a counter-argument to the digital cottage industry approach. Even a film like RAGE, by having such a small crew (I operated the camera myself, for example) does in a sense steal work from others who would otherwise be employed in one capacity or another. A film is not a solitary process, like writing a book or painting. It is a collaborative medium, an interface of art and industry, and therefore money is involved for those people – from sound recordists to editors to lab technicians – who depend on being paid.

So it is all relative. RAGE is, by most industry standards, extremely low budget and aesthetically naked. A new genre? Perhaps not. (It was a Reuters journalist in Berlin who described it that way, not me.) I called it ‘poor’ cinema in the tradition of Grotowski’s poor theatre, or Brecht’s epic theatre…naked in the sense of a form being laid bare. ‘Kitchen-table filmmaking’ is another term…a simple description of where most of the plotting and planning took place (and some of the editing).

The familiar glamourised images of stars getting in and out of limousines are really just window dressing in an industry supported by the labours of countless invisible others on the other side of the camera. Similarly, the images on this site of a group of us on the red carpet at Berlin surrounded by photographers are images of a fleeting moment in a long and unglamorous process.

As for your question “Must art steal from life in order to enrich it?” Taken literally, I don’t think that the money that went into RAGE, so far, took it from anywhere else. Recent global finances seem to indicate that there is not a fund of money with a limit, but rather a process of financing in crisis. Money seems to be a kind of fiction that depends, in the capitalist system, on confidence.

My hope was that RAGE would, in its own way, encourage more money to go to more filmmakers if they could limit their budgets in a meaningful way. But perhaps more importantly, I hoped that one of the central themes of the film – the way in which the pursuit of profit impoverishes us all - might have its own subtle impact and do its work in the slow and strangely immeasurable way that art functions.

And I believe that art is not theft but gift, even if the gift seems unwanted when it is first offered.”

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Barefoot Filmmaking

Just before I started work on RAGE I wrote myself a private manifesto. I called it “Barefoot Filmmaking” and it was a way of reminding myself what I believed in and how to approach work on this new project. It is something I have often done over the years, partly as away of tracking my own principles and as a way of energising myself when I have felt like an outsider, working against the grain.

A manifesto, even when kept private, dignifies an approach which may otherwise remain obscure. A recent lovely post on the forum made me decide to look up this last document again. I have subsequently revised both how I think about some of these things and what to call this way of thinking. “Poor Cinema” is my favourite, but in the past, when I started out, I called it “Kitchen table filmmaking” as that was so often where I ended up working. Anyway, here it is:

The best time to start is now (don’t wait)

Take responsibility for everything (it saves time)

Don’t blame anyone or anything (including yourself)

Give up being a moviemaker victim (of circumstance, weather, lack of money, mean financiers, vicious critics, greedy distributors, indifferent public, etc.)

You can’t always choose what happens while you are making a film, but you can choose your point of view about what happens
(creative perspective)

Mistakes are your best teacher (so welcome them)

Turn disaster to advantage (there will be many)

Only work on something you believe in (life is too short to practice insincerity)

Choose your team carefully and honour them (never speak negatively about your colleagues)

Ban the word “compromise” (or the phrase “it will do”)
(the disappointment in yourself will haunt you later)

Be prepared to work harder than anyone you are employing

Be ruthless – be ready to throw away your favourite bits (you may well be attached to what is familiar rather than what is good).

Aim beyond your limits (and help others to go beyond theirs)
(the thrill of the learning curve)

When in doubt, project yourself ten years into the future and look back – what will you be proud of having done?
(indecision is a lack of the longer view or wider perspective)

Practice no waste – psychic ecology – prevent brain pollution
(don’t add to the proliferation of junk)

Be an anorak – keep your sense of wonder and enthusiasm
(cynicism will kill your joy and motivation)

Get some sleep when you can (you wont get much later)

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Pleasures in Lean Times

I suspect RAGE may be seen as a film for lean times.

It’s certainly ‘no waste’ filmmaking: low-budget and definitely not an extravagant spectacle. But what it lacks in special effects, fancy locations and orchestral score I hope it makes up for in entertainment, somewhere close to the roots of cinematic storytelling.

As the characters struggle to decipher what is really important to them in a world dominated by surfaces - surfaces which are cracking all around them - a different kind of beauty emerges in each of their faces. And the cast - which included some of my all time favorite actors - took on the challenge with gusto.

As work in the cutting room progressed the recession deepened around us and some aspects of the story seemed prescient. The link between personal and global, corporate and individual; the struggle for economic survival.

Film sales too are unstable. It will be interesting to see if RAGE itself is seen by buyers as a commodity that can survive in a volatile and uncertain market. The truism is that in previous recessions audiences sought entertainment as escape from their anxieties. No lectures, no didactic reinforcement of the suffering. Just pleasure.

With this in mind I dedicated much energy to the visual pleasures in RAGE, simple though they are, and to a kind of nourishment of the secret self... in lean times we have to remember who we really are and what is important to us. There are choices to be made.

As Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) – a young model in the story who, it turns out, is something of a philosopher - says at one point: “Free will must have something to do with it. Otherwise what’s the point of being alive?”

See all the cast

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Beauty

Part of the subject matter of RAGE is the ugly use of beauty in the pursuit of profit. Drugged by Marketing, sapped by fear of ageing, conned by the cult of celebrity... image becomes all.

Jude Law, whose beauty has sometimes been held against him as an actor, made the courageous decision to accept the role of Minx - a “celebrity super-model” and took on a kind of hyper-beauty for this persona... a ‘female’ beauty which gradually unravels as the story unfolds.

Strangely, the more he became a ‘she’, coiffed and made-up - the more naked was his performance. There was great strength in his willingness to make himself vulnerable. It was an extraordinarily intense part of the shoot.

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Sound

RAGE has been a consistent experience at every stage of the working process: none of the usual rules seemed to apply. In the cutting room the handheld material (no cut-aways, no reverse angles) dictated a different way of editing. The so-called “language” of film - where and how to cut to create pace and energy - seemed irrelevant, even fake, and was not an option.

Similarly, the sound world seemed to reach such degrees of ‘emptiness’ in order to feel ‘full’, that we found we had to re-think the process of hearing itself. This is in large part because most of the big events and action in the story happen (audibly) off-screen. In parallel with listening to the character who is talking we have to absorb a lot of activity that is happening out of sight.

Daniel and I cut, mixed and re-mixed the levels in the cutting room again and again but the final sound mix was in the hands of Vincent Tulli.

He, too, remarked that none of the usual rules seemed to apply. Less was usually (but not always) more. The criteria was to search always for what kept us connected with the core of the material or the character. No empty effects, nothing redundant or gratuitous. It was kind of exhilarating to not be able to take anything for granted.

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Berlin

RAGE is nearly done. The picture is locked and I am about to go to Paris to finish mixing the sound with Vincent Tulli (who mixed YES) and then, in January, to make a 35mm print with Digimage.

Of course in reality RAGE will not be ‘done’ until the first public screening…the audience makes it gel, somehow, with the first collective response. It is only then that I ever begin to truly sense what I have made….

I am happy that the premiere will be in Berlin. It was at this festival, always in the chilly winter months, that I saw my first films on a big screen. Thriller and The Gold Diggers were screened as part of the Forum section, organised so expertly and lovingly by the great cineastes Ulrich and Erica Gregor.

Berlin has other significance for me as well; it was the name of a performance series made with Rose English in the years before I made Thriller; an audience followed each episode for a month in a London squat, on an ice-rink and in a swimming pool. At one point our chorus of men stood on a mantlepiece above a blazing fire. Why was the piece called Berlin? The word evoked wild cabaret, political schizophrenia, ghosts, creative daring, political repression, music, and above all the wall. A sense of place with an unparalleled atmosphere, both sinister and inviting.

Now it is transformed, a city that attracts artists, dancers, musicians and money; it is still a beautiful place to visit when the cold is biting, and the spirit of the old Berlin can be found in dark corners, glittering bars, echoing train stations.

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The Caravan

It has been a while since my last blog. The main reason is that all my attention has been going into setting up my new film, which is now one-third in the metaphorical can…(it being a digital adventure).

The film is called RAGE. It started out many years ago as a screenplay that morphed into snippets of an imaginary and rejected film in THE TANGO LESSON. I thought that was the end of the idea, but it wouldn’t let me go. Last winter, sitting in a little caravan in snowbound France, shivering, wrapped in rugs and staring at the mountains in the distance to clean my mind in between rushes of rewriting, the film finally found its form. It now scarcely resembles its previous incarnations.

The last nine weeks have been spent in New York making it all happen. I am so glad I waited until the moment was right. It promises to be a very much more interesting film than it would have been when I first dreamed it up.

There are two thirds of the script yet to shoot and all of postproduction to find out what the film really is…but I am in its thrall, I want only to be with my beloved actors as they so delicately and powerfully manifest the words on the page and bring them to the light.

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