Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a staff film critic for the A.V. Club. He has written for Mubi Notebook, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, and assorted other publications. He co-hosted Roger Ebert presents At the Movies with Christy Lemire. His medium-length film Ellie Lumme will have its East Coast premiere as part of BAMcinemaFest.
Before I became a critic, I made small, gutless films in which nothing really happened, most of which no one will ever see because they’ve been destroyed by poor digital storage. Thankfully. The survivors – the least worthless – were the two I shot on 16mm black-and-white Kodak Tri-X reversal stock. I keep them on daylight spools in a little leather bag with a zipper, under my desk. I was 18 when I made them.
I’ve spent most of my career as a critic trying to covertly figure out what was wrong with those little movies. I thought that I didn’t understand the medium and its history, and so I started writing about film. Every other review, I found myself up against those films again. They were nagging ghosts.
Over time, as I became more comfortable with film history, I became more comfortable with films that weren’t beholden to it. I went into movies backwards, as a strict formalist who gradually developed an appreciation for classical Hollywood, and then contemporary refuse: action films, B-grade genre flicks, films that treated the romantic comedy as though it still meant something. And, around then, it dawned on me that the awkwardness of the early films had less to do with an absence of what you’d call “formal rigor” than with cowardice.
I had shot the films myself and rationalized it by saying that I didn’t know a camera operator whose eye and instincts I could trust, but the truth was that I was afraid of having to explain myself to a crew, because I knew that I would sound stupid. And I was afraid of actors and narrative, so I cast friends and had them use their real names and gave them pages of boilerplate script day-of and little direction and just accepted whatever came out. I told myself that I was capturing reality, but what I was really doing was creating an environment in which I could take as little responsibility as possible, and hide behind the viewfinder, worrying so much about focus and framing that I didn’t have time to think about what was going to be happening on screen.
In my early years as a critic, I had the benefit of obscurity. Some of the first publications I wrote for no longer exist, and my early writings have disappeared along with their archives. I’m a young person – a millennial – and I’ve watched ostensibly boundless digital space swallow up more than it preserves.
Those early years were awkward, littered with cheap imitations of French critical styles I’d only read in English translation. The now-years are awkward, too. I’ve struggled for so long with trying to find a prose voice in which I could feel comfortable that I’ve come to accept that no writing style, however personal, is one-size-fits-all. Adjustments must be made for every subject. A good essay or a good review should feel like starting over. When the writing comes easily, I become suspicious; I presume that I’m missing something. When it seems like I’m writing uphill, I feel invigorated; where there’s a struggle, there’s something worth doing.
Which, I guess, is why I went back to making movies – this time thinking of myself not as a filmmaker, but as a director. I wanted to work with serious actors who would challenge me. I wanted to work with a crew. I wanted to decorate sets. From years of writing about movies and interviewing the people who made them, I’d come to realize that directing meant constructing and maintaining a creative environment. You control the environment, it creates the results.
I’d told myself for years that film directing took more life experience than any other creative act, because movies absorbed every medium and drew on life, and could be emotional, political, and erotic all at the same time. By this point, I was married and a parent. I had what I’d call a fairly respectable career as a critic. I’d hosted a TV show, been through my share of failure and humiliation, and gone through a personal crisis that led me to stop writing for six months. I figured that was good enough for a start.
I wrote a script in a few weeks. We raised a small budget via crowdfunding, from generous donors, many of whom still haven’t received their rewards. We rehearsed it. We shot it. We cut it. Editors and cinematographers are bullshit filters; even if every decision is yours, it has to pass through them first, and sometimes it comes back as a question. The editor, Shane Simmons, never saw a page of script, and I didn’t tell him the plot before we started cutting. We worked off of the slate numbers and whatever little bits of information I would feed him. The editing process was like a sieve. Scenes were re-arranged or dropped. The narrative was restructured to fit the performances and the emotional pitch. We looked at relationships between shots – audiovisual rhymes, echoes of earlier scenes – and worked from there.
On set, I learned who needed space and who didn’t to be creative. I realized that I loved working with actors, figuring out psychological inconsistencies and answering questions. Years ago, when I’d make those little nothing movies, I couldn’t tear my eye away from the viewfinder long enough to answer a cast member’s question. On the second day of the shoot, we rehearsed a scene that consisted of a single 90-second take, which would circle a small room. (The editing process being what it was, we eventually cut the take down into several shots.)
Cory Popp, our director of photography, hid lights in every corner. There were a dozen actors in the shot, and, as Cory and I rehearsed the movement of the camera, it became clear that there would only be room next to him for one other person, and it had to be our sound man, Steve Lynch. I’m a tall guy, a little over 6’4”, and there was nowhere for me to hide. So Steve gave me a long headphone cable, and I went next door, to sit cross-legged on the floor, with my hands covering my eyes, while they shot the scene. In between takes, I would return and give directions and go back to my dark corner in the next room. I was anxious. It was risky. And because it was risky, it felt right. Directing means setting up conditions to the point where you have the confidence to leave the room. I felt that sour uphill climb feeling that I’d get in writing criticism, when I’d realize that I was faced with a subject that might be beyond my grasp, but which I nonetheless had to take a swipe at.
Now I’m typing this up on my laptop, with two stacks of printed-out paper in front of me. (I work best in longhand; I write, I type, I print, and I write more, allowing the text to grow in the margins of printed page.) The first stack is a long essay on Chaplin. Every time I write about Chaplin, I feel overwhelmed; there’s so much that’s been written, by people who were smarter and more eloquent than me. And yet I love Chaplin so much that I feel like a coward for not trying to find a new way to write about him. It’s the same with movies; I love them too much not to do something about it. The other, thicker stack, is the script for my next film, which will be my first feature. I plan to start shooting at the end of the summer. I still can’t figure out the ending, and that excites me, because I want to make movies that are unpredictable. The first piece of dialogue is on page 2. It’s voice over: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”