Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Greatest Show, on film

I  dreamed of clowns reading sentences from my book. These dreams were visual with no sound or narrative coherence. As with all dreams, they felt perfect and unrealized. The clowns all looked happy and friendly, and they recited sad sentences about the Hartford circus fire. Ah. Irony.

Months later, hundreds of miles from home, I squatted in the hallway of an old factory, holding a dry-erase board where I had written, “It’s all pain, right?” and a clown named Annabelle recited that line as my friend Brian filmed her and recorded the sound.

“So how does a little clowning make anything worse?”

“Let’s do another one closer,” Brian said.

I’m no filmmaker. To realize my dream of clowns and sad sentences, I telephoned my friend, Brian McDermott. Brian lives in Massachussets and teaches videography and journalism at UMass-Amherst. We met when he was a student in classes I taught at the University of Montana. But he’s a talented photographer and writer who didn’t need to be taught anything, really. He always knew what to do with a photograph or a video or a story.

Writers don’t have many opportunities for artistic collaboration. There’s only one chair at most desks, and that’s where we work. But ever since a stint at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, I’ve thought more and more about collaboration. While at VCCA, I spent lots of time talking with visual artists and composers, and their ideas about art were exciting and in many ways, for me, new. Later, I noted how Ron Tanner, a writer and friend, put together a book trailer for which he did the animation, gathered friends to read different parts, and asked another friend, who is a marvelous composer, to write an accompanying music score. What Ron did was something new — literary but also a different art altogether. It was, I suppose, that most collaborative of arts: a film.

That’s what I wanted for my happy clowns reciting sad sentences.

And that’s how I found myself holding onto a dry erase board and saying, “Maybe a little slower this time?”

Chris Oakley
As the dream unfolded, it took on the idiosyncracies of those other dreammakers. Once, I’d imagined an array of clowns soberly and in normal voices reading my sentences. But Nettie Lane, aka Annabelle, had her own ideas and Annabelle had her own voice. She had read the entire stories from which her lines came, and she gave them nuances and subtle and strange, delightful intepretations I’d never have been able to imagine. Brian had recommended using performers other than clowns, and had even found the circus studio to provide them. So that afternoon we also worked with a trapeze artist and a contortionist. The trapeze artist suggested she recite while hanging upside down.

And Brian? Brian’s mind never stopped working. He suggested we vary the backgrounds (“There’s a spot with a sign that reads, ‘Not an Exit,’ “ he said), and in every case he chose well. He wanted to shoot B-roll of the performers performing to edit into the readings. He directed them to face light. From behind the camera, he laughed and encouraged.

Two hours later, we were done.

Then it was Brian’s turn to sit alone at the desk. He combed the internet for royalty-free music. He edited with care. He sent me several versions to approve. I began to notice how he married images to words, how he used images as transitions. I saw my script and my unrealized dream of clowns become something else – and that something often contradicted my own visions. But it was far better than anything I could have imagined on my own.

Born from my book, but something else entirely. Something new. It is a trailer, and so it is a marketing tool in service to The Greatest Show. But it stands alone, too, I think, as the collaboration of five artists, thrilling and disturbing in its own ways.

Here it is.