When jazz guitarist Rale Micic asked if I'd be interested in doing a music video of one of his songs, I jumped at the chance.
Not only do I like Rale and his music, I'm a huge jazz fan, and, though just about every form of music today has capitalized on the promotional power of music video, jazz music videos are decidedly rare
It's true that jazz itself doesn't hold the cultural sway it once did in this country, but today's jazz fan is fiercely devoted, hungry for new artists and new sounds, and global. Rale's own story -- accidentally discovering jazz in the relative safety of Belgrade's clubs during the turbulent nineties, quickly getting hooked, and almost as quickly earning a scholarship to study it in the U.S. -- testifies to both the reach and the innate power of the music.
Mention "jazz" and "video" and I think most people assume you're talking about performance footage. For several years, I was a producer on a live Louisiana music show that featured three artists a week. I know the value -- cultural, economic, and sometimes even historic -- of capturing a live performance. From the start, though, it was clear that we were going to attempt something else.
It turns out that Rale is as big a fan of the movies as I am of jazz and that, as much as he wanted to promote his music, he was intrigued by the idea of making a "movie." We quickly settled on the idea of approaching this project as a narrative short, and I started listening to Rale's music with new ears -- at home, in the office, in the car -- eventually selecting "Serbology."
"Serbology" puts a Serbian folk-inspired theme into the hands of a jazz trio. With its emphasis on melody, composition and skillfully restrained expression, it is pure Rale the musician. But I also felt that the experimental mix of styles reflected his journey as a person and an artist, and this was just as important. It didn't hurt that live audiences responded well to it, either.
Rale agreed, and I started researching -- and listening. For a week or two, if I listened to any music, it was "Serbology." The song proved fertile ground. Ideas began to flow, and I was excited at the prospect of using only images and music to tell a story -- like so-called "silent" movies (which had musical scores and title cards, nonetheless). Given that we would be trying to reach a multi-lingual global audience, this "silent" approach made a lot of sense, but I was also piqued by our reversal of the way things are usually done in film -- images first, then music -- and began to think of my job as "scoring" a story to music.
One of the elements that initially struck me about the song was Rale's inclusion of the Tarabuka and Tapan drums, traditional instruments that I learned are a regular feature of Serbian weddings. I went through various incarnations of scenarios centered around weddings (and marriages) in New York City, but through a confluence of inspirations -- from silent movies to a folk tale or two -- I settled on the outlines of the story presented here. Rale liked all the ideas I'd been playing around with, but when I wrote the treatment for the final version, we both felt that was it.
We started a crowd funding campaign to raise the money and I, armed with script, set about finding our crew. Two months later, we had a budget and a Director of Photography, Jeff Turick. A master of the Canon 5D, Jeff immediately had some ingenious ideas about conveying the gritty side of living in New York City and how to handle the close-up guitar shots.
We then began assembling our cast, securing locations, and developing the look of our characters with our above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty Stylist Simone Colina, as I continued tweaking the script and drew up the storyboards -- until, much like the unfolding of our story itself, everything came together, and lo and behold if we didn't have confirmed dates and the permits to prove it.
Shooting took place over four days. It was an ambitious schedule, but despite the vicissitudes of weather, traffic, parking, lack of sleep, volunteer "background artists," shooting in uncontrolled public places, a skeletal crew, and costume changes without a trailer we wrapped as the sun was setting over Tompkins Square Park.
We were exhausted, but it was exhilarating! Given the schedule and our guerilla resources, if almost any one thing had gone seriously wrong, it would have sunk us. Fate threw plenty of curves, but when things got rough, we all kept slogging forward until, suddenly, everything was in the can and we were done! We could hardly believe it.
If the stars had anything to do with it, it could only be that they had assembled this specific group of people at this specific time in this specific place.
I couldn't have asked for a braver cast, most of whom had never acted in front of a camera before and who trusted me implicitly. Despite the drudgery of the inevitable waiting actors do on-set, despite spending hours in the cold in skimpy costumes, despite few amenities, when called upon, everyone was fully present and ready to gave it their all, which they did without complaint. And give they did, surprising even me, and perhaps themselves, with the purity, intuitiveness, and intensity of their performances, and giving those of us behind the camera, moments of pure movie magic. Through them, the story came to life in ways I could not have imagined when I put it to paper, and as one-by-one we parted company in Tompkins Square, I couldn't express enough how proud I was of every one of them. I still am.
From our very first meeting, Jeff, our DP, proved himself a creative force. Just from having read the script he had internalized my vision of the project and was already working out ways to get it on-screen. But this was nothing compared to seeing Jeff in action. Fully committed to giving the project the best possible look, he sweated the details without losing sight of the big picture, in constant and deliberate motion. And if Jeff works well, he also works fast, which was indispensable to meeting our demanding schedule. Much more than a hired gun, Jeff rose to the level of collaborator in many respects and I quickly felt I could rely on his judgement when I needed to. I had raised the bar high, and in the hands of practically any other DP, I wonder if we would have gotten everything we needed or even met our deadline. I do know that our video wouldn't look as if we had spent much, much more on it than we actually did. If John Alton were reincarnated and shooting with a Canon 5D today, I think he might well be named Jeff Turick.
Jeff also brought with him the talented group of young filmmakers who made up our dedicated crew. Stephen Cannella deserves particular mention for constructing the slider dolly set-up for our guitar fretboard close-ups, which I'm sure Rale won't forget any time soon. He looked and probably felt like some sort of guitar-playing Transformer.
Rale also brought in our Stylist, the passionate Simone Colina, also the mother of our production's "angel," Lorelei Colina Hatt. Like Jeff, she immediately "got it" and began scouring the city for just the right pair of pants, or scarf, or earrings, or hat -- anything to support the story and each character's progression. She showed no bounds in her quest -- even sacrificing a treasured tablecloth to give the Serbian drummers sashes in the final scene (my heart-felt apologies to her that we never got to see them). To say that she is the consummate pro would be an understatement -- Simone showed up for our longest, coldest day of shooting to shepherd the cast through their costume changes with pneumonia. We urged her to go home, but she would have none of it.
Once in the can, I set about finding our project's editor, and again, much like our story, Robert Gregson ambled into our production. From seeing his work, I knew that Robert had that intuitive feel for putting images together in time that is almost beyond words, yet essential to good editing. There was a lot of narrative ground to cover anchored by an immutable soundtrack, and he deftly navigated these waters to achieve just the right balance. That Robert also has an innate feel for music is evident from the cut he produced, and I'm glad I was able to give this budding writer-director in his own right some exposure.
The final step found our footage back in Jeff's capable hands for color grading. Committed to eking out every last possible expressive drop from our available toolkit, Jeff proposed an approach that would highlight NY's gritty side, accentuate our color scheme and support the overall narrative progression -- all while hinting at the "silent" roots of the project. I loved it, and while he didn't feel the need for specific credit, I want to thank him here.
The project has already had a television premiere of sorts when Rale was invited on a popular Serbian program and a work-in-progress version was broadcast to some two million viewers late in August. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and this was even before Jeff worked his grading magic. We are currently looking at television outlets in Europe, Japan, even here in the U.S., and to enter it into festivals worldwide.
Last month Rale hosted cast, crew and fans for some Serbian soul food and the official premiere just blocks from Tompkins Square Park. It was good to see everyone again and to be with them as they watched the video for the first time. I'm happy to say that there were many smiles and hugs and requests to see it again and again. It even drew praise from some who just happened to be in the restaurant at the time!
Rale then gave it its YouTube debut the day after -- and the rest is on-going Web history.
Apart from the many compliments we've received on how polished the video is, I've particularly enjoyed hearing the range of interpretations people have ascribed to it. The nature of the coin, the character of the young girl, the culminating integration of the final scene are all elements that repeatedly come up. Often people want me to confirm their interpretation, but I don't think there is any right or wrong. I may have had my own ideas when I conceived it, but the work is now out there, and if it engages and energizes peoples' minds enough for them to create their own meaning, then I couldn't be happier (except when their next question is where to buy Rale's CD!).
Besides, they probably wouldn't believe me if I told them that for me it's simply the story of how two "girls" saved my life.
Feel free to leave me any comments here, or you can watch the video on Rale's YouTube page -- http://youtu.be/cxGvPXuNPhs -- and share your impressions directly with him.
-- Greg MacDonald