It’s been just over a week since I received this email from Eric Maierson:
“Thanks for all the great plugs for MediaStorm. Did you have a chance to check out ‘Three Women’? Be curious to hear your thoughts.”
Thus began an email conversation about Eric’s new piece — a series of three monologues depicted with photography — which led to this Q&A with Eric about process, writing, working with a photographer and his decision to employ the multimedia form to create a work of fiction, he says, “that’s also true.”
“Three Women” is described as a work of fiction whose stories are also true. Where did the idea for a piece about women in pain come from?
It started with the first sentence of the piece, “Why are the simple things so hard to understand?” I was standing on a subway platform. The question interested me, so it seemed natural to try to answer it. So I kept writing, slowly, until I completed the first monologue. After that, the tone was set, which made writing the other two a bit clearer. (Ed note: View the script here.)
I think most writers try to feel their way through a story, testing what seems authentic with regards to a character and disregarding the rest. I know it’s sounds a bit murky, but for me at least, the process is about intuition and empathy, trying to feel my way into someone’s emotional life.
I read in an Innovative Interactivity interview that you had been making short films and scriptwriting for many years before joining MediaStorm. What prompted you to, in a sense, combine the short and multimedia forms for “Three Women”?
Honestly, the primary motive was money. I knew it would be cheaper than hiring a DP and paying for a gaffer and lights. My last short, “The Party,” was a one-day shoot and ended up costing about $6,000 (U.S.). This time I didn’t have that kind of money, so I decided to break down the shooting into sections so that they could be done in short bursts over time.
Plus, I’d spent the last three-and-a-half-years producing multimedia at MediaStorm, so I wanted to see how those same techniques could be used in fiction. It seemed like a natural progression.
The monologues I was writing were quiet and contemplative, and still images seemed like a natural choice to fit that mood.
Can you tell us about your own personal writing/storyboarding process? For “Three Women,” did you write the monologues first, think in images . . . ?
I wrote the monologues first. They stayed pretty much intact thoughout the production. The only major change was I swapped the last two lines of the piece so that the ending became, “Sometimes things just are and that’s it.” The line has more finality and closure. That was Brian Storm’s idea shortly before I finished. I was hesitant, as I was attached to the way I had originally written it. But like in so many things, Brian made the right call.
For the images, I created a shot list for each monologue — close up of hands, makeup, etc. I’d talk with photographer Pam Chen about the list briefly on set, then I’d basically get out of the way so she could do her thing. Invariably, some of the most striking images had nothing to do with what I had imagined and everything to do with Pam’s ability to make beautiful images in just about any situation.
Can you tell us about the process of working with Pam Chen, the photographer?
First, let me say that this project would not have been possible without her immense talents. I was at a party once where we tried to figure out something she wasn’t good at. The best we could come up with was throwing a baseball.
I think, at least at first, Pam was challenged by the idea that she could ask the actors to try something different. She’s a trained photojournalist, so the notion that you can ask a subject to do anything is rightfully verboten. But that was a small hurdle.
As I mentioned, we shot “Three Women” like a film, with a shot list of ideas, and within that framework I let Pam have control. Many times, in tight places, she was working with the actors alone. I didn’t have a tethered feed to her camera, so she showed me images every few minutes and I’d make suggestions. After a few shoots we found our stride, and the collaboration became second nature.
We re-shot the first and third women twice. We were learning as we went, so after I edited those sections, I knew that some of the images weren’t working. The challenge was to make pictures that best represented the monologues without being too on the nose. Early on, I think I went too far in one direction. For example, I surrounded Rhonda Keyser on her bed with about four dozen eggs. It was a cool shot, but within the context of the film it was, to be charitable, wildly out of place.
Break down the timeline for us: Three years working on this film = X time writing, X time casting/logistics/etc., X time shooting, X time editing, etc.
It was a slow process. Most of the three years was consumed by scheduling conflicts. When your talent is working for little or no money, you’re at the mercy of other people’s schedules. And who has an excess of time these days?
There was no real casting process. I know lots of actors and tend to work with people I’m close with. For me, that makes the process more intimate. Plus, Rhonda Keyser, Elizabeth Van Meter, and Monique Vukovic are exquisitely talented actors, which was, of course, an immense plus.
The actual shoots were fairly short, usually taking between three and four hours. After working so intensely, all of the actors wanted to wait before laying down their voice-over, so we did a lot of scratch tracks. I met with them later to record their “final” takes. Sometimes we’d re-record two and three different times, sometimes months apart. I was a bit fanatical about getting things right.
Photographer Jeff Hutchens shot the four video interludes. If you’ve never seen Jeff’s photography, go look now. No one shoots like him. So I poached some video he’d shot at the MediaStorm workshop last summer, then prayed he’d approve. Fortunately after he saw the piece, he agreed to let me use them. I should add that Jeff and I are friends, so I took just a small liberty in “borrowing” his work first. Later, I promised to sign him up for a cheese-of-the-month club as a thank you, a promise I’ve yet to fulfill. Plus, I don’t even know if he likes cheese.
I produced the piece entirely outside the realm of MediaStorm, on my own and without really talking about it at work. After I’d taken the piece as far as I could, I showed Brian. Secretly, I’d spent the last few years hoping he’d put it on the site. Once he agreed to license “Three Women,” we spent a Saturday looking through all of Pam’s photographs. He changed maybe seven or eight images and really improved the piece in that way.
Then Pam signed off on the changes and color-corrected the images. I made a final sound mix, and designer Jacky Myint at MediaStorm created the great poster image you now see on the site.
I’ve really been overwhelmed by the positive response. Most everything else I’ve made on my own has been met with polarizing opinions. But the feedback that I’ve received has been very gracious and I’m grateful for that.
You also edited “Three Women.” How did this differ from other projects you’ve worked on? Also, how involved was the photographer?
I think it’s harder to edit your own work. I knew what needed to be cut; it just took me longer to let it go. There’s naturally more of an emotional attachment to one’s own work.
Other than that, I used the same workflow I normally do at MediaStorm. I edited the audio first, then added images once the radio cut was in place.
The process was recursive, though, as we had a number of re-shoots. So I frequently swapped out images and replaced audio. The timeline was constantly in flux.
Shortly after “Three Women” was released, you wrote an entry on your blog called “What Now?” Can you expand on the creative brain being uncertain about what’s next?
I have a lot of false starts. One day I’ll write something that’s full of possibility. The next day all of the energy is gone. Who knows why? So it takes a while for things to stick. I imagine it’s a bit like hunting when you don’t know exactly what you’re hunting for.
My process, I’ve learned, is slow. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. Plus, being prolific at MediaStorm has natural consequences for the rest of my life, namely time. Which is not to say I’m unfulfilled editing and producing nonfiction, quite the opposite. They obviously feed each other.
Plus, at heart, my job and my outside work are really just different ways to tell stories.
What do you do when you’re not making films, editing, blogging, tweeting, etc.?
I’ve been taking piano lessons for about seven years. I’ve always wanted to be a musician, but I think I lack some essential quality or gene. Still, I’m trying. I’m the only adult my teacher instructs, so I guess I can take some small comfort in being better than most 4-year-olds. I emphasize most. I like the meditative quality and focused attention it requires. I play every morning for about half an hour.
I also read a lot. My apartment is overrun with books. I don’t know if there’s anything I like better than going to a bookstore. Even if I don’t buy anything. Just being there relaxes me. Plus, I try to read a lot of background information on the stories I’m producing.
And then, of course, there’s the family, my wife Ellen, and my pit-bull mix, Emmy. We like to watch movies at home, but Emmy doesn’t understand most of them, which is fine because she sleeps through them anyway.