Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman needed a mere 14 shooting days this spring to shoot Howl in Manhattan. That singular fact is both remarkable and deceptive, as preproduction and postproduction require substantially more days, weeks and months. Indeed, the Academy Award-winning documentary makers, making their narrative feature debut with this dramatic saga of Allen Ginsberg’s scintillating, scathing poem and the obscenity charges that landed City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a San Francisco courtroom in 1957, are happy to be back in their comfort zone. "I love the editing process," Epstein declares. "It’s usually my favorite part. This is when you really feel it coming alive—or not, and have to find ways to make it come alive."
The task of refining structure, rhythm and tempo is complicated somewhat by the integration of an unusual element: animation. The filmmakers, aided and abetted by local whiz John Hayes of Wildbrain Animation Studios, developed a storyboard and animatic based on Berkeley artist Eric Drooker’s character animation. They then gave the raw material to The Monk, a Bangkok-based visual effects and animation company. Every Friday at 2 p.m., the Thai firm uploads the week’s work for Epstein and Friedman to review and critique.
This was not the original plan, mind you. "The Ginsberg estate came to us with the notion of doing a film about the poem," Epstein recalls. "Our approach was pretty standard documentary fare." The duo gradually concluded that a radical strategy truer to the poem’s controversial and confessional spirit was needed. Their "Eureka!" moment coincided with the discovery of Illuminated Poems, a 1996 collaboration between Ginsberg and Drooker. As a result, Epstein says, "We’re essentially doing a graphic novel of Howl, and animating that graphic novel."
The finished film will integrate the live-action period drama shot in New York—starring James Franco as the queer, outspoken Ginsberg—with seven animated scenes illustrating the poet’s epic. The dramatic footage should be compelling in its own right, given the commitment of cast and crew to a project they universally regarded as much more than just another job. (Epstein also salutes the producers, who agreed to a last-minute rejiggering of the schedule to shoot a newly written, high-energy entrance for Neal Cassady with actor Jon Prescott driving into the film and running up a stairwell.)
With a certain film festival beginning to loom on the horizon, I asked Epstein if it was too early to talk about Sundance. "It’s too early for us to talk about Sundance," he replied with a laugh. "We have to show them the movie before we know anything."
Epstein confides that the filmmakers never had a specific destination, or even a specific month, in mind. "It always depends on how everything lands," he notes. "It could have been a different scenario if we’d shot at a different time of year." In fact, their late November-early December deadline isn’t strategic, but budgetary. "That’s always what one’s up against," Epstein points out. They have a date with Lora Hirshberg at Skywalker Sound the first week of December to mix the film.
If Howl does debut at Sundance, it will likely elicit comparison with Chicago 10, another film based on real events that premiered at Sundance and utilized animation. Brett Morgen’s documentary was rather roundly criticized for its approach and technique, to the point that its themes were overlooked. Epstein doesn’t waste any energy worrying about what people are going to say about Howl. (Epstein is typically the worrier on the team, so it’s a safe bet that Friedman is even less concerned. He was on vacation, as the filmmakers have arranged to take separate breaks in order to keep the workflow going, so I couldn’t ask him.)
Epstein adopts the philosophy of any director who adapts a beloved work of literature. "People who are familiar with the poem already have their own imagery," he explains. "It’s analogous to making a movie of a great novel. People either go with that [or not]."
Notes from the Underground
Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers will receive its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival before beginning an open-ended engagement at NYC’s Film Forum Sept. 16. An Oscar-qualifying L.A. run will follow.…Nearly five years after Romantico, his marvelously unsentimental portrait of a Mission District mariachi player who goes back to Mexico, New York-based doc maker Mark Becker returns to local theatres Aug. 21. Pressure Cooker, co-directed with Jennifer Grausman, centers on three Philly high school students and their tough-love culinary arts teacher.…The North American tour of the concert version of Star Wars begins Oct. 1 in Anaheim and sets down Oct. 11 at San Jose’s HP Pavilion for two shows. The ticket price of $35-$75 includes an orchestra and choir performing music from the six flicks in sync with film sequences, and an exhibit of costumes, props and other artifacts granted a quick vacation from Skywalker Ranch.
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
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