Location Scouting and Writing for a Chaplin-inspired Short Film at Berkeley
Prologue & Getting the Idea
In one of my classes, Film 105 (Early Cinema, 1895-ca.1920), one of my colleagues asked “Can we also do a short instead of a final research paper?”. That student, Nathan, also has experience in filmmaking, hence the idea of shooting something instead of brooding over a stack of paper came naturally. I hadn’t even thought of it, but our professor said “Absolutely, as long as it’s accompanied with a little write-up about why and how!”.
That triggered an idea in me; I wanted to shoot something here very badly, and now I had an excuse to devote lots of time to the idea. Influenced by another class, Film 151 (Charlie Chaplin & Woodie Allen) I started to really like and care about Chaplin’s work. He had an incredibly troublesome life path, starting in as-poor-as-it-gets life in England, and ends up as one of the most paid people in the entire world as a creative force of the silent cinema.
To be honest, my film consumption behavior is very un-academic; I mostly watch films that were made post-1990, in color, with sound, with modern production values and modern storytelling. If it was not for my film history classes at SMC and Berkeley, I probably could count the black and white films I saw in my life on one hand.
But since I have these classes, I started developing a certain appreciation for the medium that has historical context, has historical significance; things that most post-1990 movies don’t have. Some of Allen’s early work leaves you in a breathless state of having peed your pants at the end of the film, and some of Chaplin’s early work just leave you a giggling mess; something that modern comedies sometimes can’t either.
Regardless, Film 105 & 151 inspired me to combine the whole idea of silence VS. sound and Charlie Chaplin. From another class, I got an interesting article called “Chaplin attacks the talkies”, which describes him as hating sound and finding it to be the killer of all sex appeal and beauty in films, the enemy of comedy and the sure guillotine of silent pantomime. So, on a random day, I was playing in my head, and came up with a concept: The film I wanted to make would be about a character that was similar to Chaplin, had physical problems with sound and color, and would celebrate slapstick, pathos and the silent era. Essentially, a tribute to Chaplin, specifically the silent period of his film life.
Uncertainty and Questioning
A few weeks went by, my workload grew, some collaborators asked me about my whereabouts and why I was not productive; I was doing so many things at the same time that I had trouble committing real time to any of them. Walking home from one of my classes, the film came back into my mind. I started to question if it was the right time.
“I have a good idea, but I could just make it next semester, when I am taking a production class..”
“I’m burnt out already anyway, this will be so much work that I can only do it half-assed, and it will turn out to be a sham. If I do it after the summer, I will actually have time, and can make a really outstanding project that could inspire other Berkeley students to do the same.”
“I don’t even have a fleshed out idea yet. And not really any budget.”
Those thoughts were in my head. I was walking home from a class, and said to myself “make a decision”. I turned the lock in the door to my pirate house up in the hill, closed the door. Nobody home. Dark wooden walls. Pretty shine. I only have four semesters in total at Berkeley – whatever I don’t start now will never get going. And I have a clear picture in mind, namely transforming UC Berkeley into a place where reputable shortfilms can be made, where great filmmakers can emerge from a mostly academic environment by being inventive about sourcing their resources together. Inventive filmmakers that don’t waste time, that appreciate their own doubts but decide to not give a fuck about them.
So, I decided that it was out of the question to doubt the making of this relatively ambitious project – I had to do it. I ran upstairs in my tiny, crammed, chaotic, stinky room, threw on the iMac, went on facebook and wrote to a bunch of people with filmmaking potential at Berkeley: “I’m making a movie, who’s with me?”
Finding Inspiration for the Actual Story
Now I had a concept, I had asked Hiroki to come and shoot the film, and I had a few friends at Berkeley agreeing to participate in making the project. What I needed was more inspiration. I spent many weeks running around Berkeley and compiling the Cal Film RUB – part of the plan to establish a real filmmaking community here. Hence, I was inclined to shoot the film somewhere on campus, and form the details and characters of the story around the locations; make the Berkeley campus look like a little town for a little tramp.
I got good feedback on a basic outline from colleagues and faculty, and eventually met with Marilyn Fabe, my professor in the Chaplin class. “It’s this guy with sensory overload problems … and then, Melies pulls the colors off the film …. And then, there is a chase with the police! And the end up in a museum, well, not sure if I can get one, but…”
There was a scent of scepticism in the air, in that nice office up in Dwinelle, stacked with lots of books and decades of experience.
My professor only knew me as a student from class who was always late and had an avid interest in raising hands for class discussion – but nevertheless gave me a pointer.
“Did you hear of the Niles Silent Film Museum?”
“Eh – No?”
“I talked about it in class. I actually invited you all to come with us to check it out, but nobody signed up.”
Are you serious! I researched and found a bunch of museums that would kind-of be a fit, but was doubtful of getting permission to shoot in any in the first place – museums are such delicate places that super low budget student productions might not be welcome – and now I hear about a museum that is about SILENT FILMS?!
“And it’s in Niles, just down the Bay, Chaplin used to shoot some of his films there, it was the California location of the Essenay film studios.”
On Locati0n, Breathing Chaplin – and Researching for the Story
I am in Niles, California. I check in to the cheapest motel in the area. Three days of my spring break are dedicated to writing this film. I realize that I forgot the power cord to my laptop; good that I recently bought an external keyboard for my tablet, so I can still write with a decent speed. Armed with my 7D, I enter the town of Niles. A fascinating place, full of old vibes, full of Charlie Chaplin references. He was here for only 3 months, but 100 years later, everyone still takes pride in his presence.
Niles has more antique stores than any other micro-town – every third or fourth store is selling antiques of all kinds. Most areas are nicely remodeled, American flags everywhere – this is certainly a place of history. The town is so small that it doesn’t even have a major; it’s part of Fremont, about 45 minutes south of Berkeley. The people there are mostly from prior generations, similar to my homecountry Austria. I eventually enter a bar, after being told that they have a historical tunnel there, which was used to smuggle alcohol from bar to bar in the time of prohibition.
The tunnel s actually there, and a woman in the bar – after inquiring where I was from – decided to show me as a foreigner how warmhearted and welcoming America can be.
Nicole, the nice woman from the bar, actually takes me in her car all around town, introduces me to her friends, shows me some great places to eat and drink, and tells me lots of her life and shares some great insider knowledge about Niles. That comes completely unexpected – I actually feel a bit as if stepping into the footsteps of one of these master journalists and writers who go into some town and make friends with the locals and come up with great stories. During that day, one of the antique storw owners lets me read the Niles chapter of Chaplin’s autobiography for free, so I get a better idea of what he thought of Essenay and Niles – and that the Essenay Studios disappeared because of financial difficulties.
The Silent Film Museum, and Writing the Film
Back at the motel – nothing to do, 8pm, slow internet, overpriced room – the perfect reason to escape it all and make the best bang for the buck out of the motel rate: Taking a hot bubble bath and reading about Chaplin. The excerpts from Chaplin’s autobiography are a complete page-turner, and sooner or later I start underlining various aspects from his life and his attitude that I can either work into the movie’s narrative thread, or use as a set of “rules” for the way the film should work. Three hours later I feel like I’ve just met Chaplin so much closer, and my skin is slowly getting wrinkly, so I exit the bathtub (which has been re-filled plenty of times).
The next morning, I climb over a hill and run across the river Niles (well, it’s next to it!) on a freight train bridge – totally not allowed, but in the Chaplin spirit – location scout a bit more and spend some hours in a cafe, browsing around on facebook and feeling stuck in my creative endeavor. I decide to call the silent film museum for a last time; they are open only on the weekend and only partially staffed during the week. Pure luck – the historian is there, and half an hour later I am inside the museum.
David tells me some more about Chaplin, and then proudly presents the magnificent collection of hand-restored 1915 cameras, all handcranked 16mm. Upstairs, we spend an hour talking about Chaplin, film, cameras and film stock – all inside an authentic leftover, a tin-lined projection room with various mechanical safety devices from back in the early 20th century: Films could get stuck in the projector, and the sheer heat coming from the projection lamp could put the film on fire – which would mean 15ft high flames that could not be put out by conventional means. This visit to the silent film museum gets me completely over-excited, and after a Bronco Billy Cowboy Pizza I head back to the motel, back to another 3-hour steaming hot bubble bath, now armed with pen and notebook.
I initially have no clue how the film’s events should happen an relate to each other, so I manufacture a page with character arcs for each character and group. This simple, abstract and analytical step solves 90% of my missing unknowns – I suddenly see the story laid out in front of me. By making these character arcs, you can visually observe where a character is actually appearing in the story, and where the character stays unseen; where his motivation changes etc. – and then you just have to fill in the action.
The film is written by diving, murmuring, screaming, making sound effects – essentially, just letting myself go in the creative steam and playing out different scenarios. Regardless how stupid the ideas, I give them a go and play the different characters in the story. Sometimes the water is so hot that I can barely stay inside the tub; sometimes its temparature is pleasant enough to actually fully submerge and keep thinking underwater. If you are like me – obsessed with technology and computers and consuming information – then a bath tub is one of the only mental escapes, in which the thinking is unhindered and distractions literally evaporate.
The next morning, I transfer the notes into script form; a few days and some cleanup later, the first draft is done – good to go to about 15 different friends, professors and fellow students for them to give me constructive criticism. There’s nothing worse than films that get no peer review in their development stage; they end up being flat and often contain logical mistakes, misconstructions etc.
The critique aspect is the most important – otherwise it’s just masturbation, and nothing comes from it.