What do you think book trailers such as that for One Word offer to readers that blurbs cannot?
So many media clamor for our attention. I think readers are drawn to the quiet that books offer—they attract us with their reticence, their lack of flashiness—but there is the problem of time. We don’t always have time to wander shelves and read the backs of books or dip into their pages. A blurb can tell you what a book is about or that an author you like enjoyed the book, but a book trailer, in two or three minutes, can help you experience the book. An engaging book trailer can give you a glimpse of the thrill within those many pages.
The short films for One Word and The Name of the Nearest River were vastly different. How did you decide which direction to take with each?
Well, Sarah Gorham was the initial creative force behind the short for The Name of the Nearest River. Sarah had the idea to go out to Rosine, Kentucky, with a camera and a lavalier mic and just interview the author about his writing and his town. For many writers this wouldn’t produce such curious results—do we really want the tour of a poet’s favorite coffee shop in San Francisco?—but Rosine intrigued me. On a gray day, Alex Taylor’s territory, so God-haunted and remote, feels darkly storied in a way not unlike Faulkner’s.
For One Word I faced a difficult cinematic challenge: bring a single word to life in pictures. Originally I wanted to take on one of the more personal essays and figure out how to shoot a short drama having to do with one of the words. But when I came across Thylias Moss’s musings on the word fork, I saw an opportunity to bring one verbal-visual idea into sharp focus. Also, I just liked the idea of collecting a bunch of cool-looking forks and seeing how they looked in extreme close-up. The 7D’s shallow depth of field gives these tiny metallic objects intriguing texture and character. Moss’s essay lent itself to a frenetic, breathless pace—i.e., many shots—so I spent many late-night hours arranging lights and camera and fork so that the glint looked just right.
What are some of the differences or considerations made between producing a film trailer and a book trailer?
That gives me an idea! It’d be fun to make a book trailer in the fast-cutting, orchestra-throbbing, narration-heavy movie trailer tradition. It’d have to be the right book, but what’s wonderful about book trailers is that no one has really decided what a book trailer has to be. I think my only guiding principle is that the sort of people who watch book trailers—myself included—are the sort of people who like art and literature and would prefer that their book advertising not feel like more advertising. I think that’s a good mission for book trailers: to be the advertisement that feels less like an advertisement, more like a short film.
The narration of the trailer for “One Word” was very well done. The stressed vocalization, “FFFFFFORK” still eerily hangs in my head. Can you describe how you came to direct the voice for the narration?
I was passing through Portland, Oregon, and learned that an old friend was in town from London. Nathan, or Dr. Nathan Hill, teaches Tibetan at the University of London, and when I spoke to him on the phone, I knew immediately that his academia/esoterica-steeped language would be brilliant for a monologue about forks. In Hollywood I might have found a great voiceover artist with more range, but I doubt I would have found that tone of bizarre, esoteric learnedness that rings through every one of Nathan’s enunciations.
How do you find a balance between writing and filmmaking? How does the creative process differ?
I’m a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a dedicated fiction writer; the balance between my fiction and filmmaking can be a tottering one, however. If I’m flying to China or Alaska to shoot documentary footage, or working toward a festival deadline, I’m probably not accomplishing a lot of writing. But whenever I can, it’s a pleasure to clear my desk and work only with words. I find that the process of editing video and the process of composing prose can be very similar. The difference is that in editing video you’re working with a sort of magnetic poetry kit: all the words and phrases you might use to tell the story are already there on a hard drive to be rearranged into new sentences, new paragraphs, new scenes. As a video editor one rarely experiences that blank-page vertigo that we all face now and then as writers.
What sort of advice would you give to recent college grads that feel torn between medias such as film and literature?
I studied film as an undergraduate and when I left decided that the best inroad to becoming a narrative filmmaker would be to write a stunning original screenplay. That realization sent me on a quixotic journey through reading literature and writing fiction—a journey that ended, impractically, with my wanting to be a fiction writer as well as a filmmaker. I’m not sure that I’ve quite cracked the code to either filmic or literary success—each artist’s path tends to be wholly his own—but I can say without a shred of doubt that I’m a better filmmaker because of my years as a writer. I also have more to write about thanks to the adventures I’ve had as a filmmaker.
Lastly, for us filmmaking buffs, what sort of set-up do you usually work with?
In the past I’ve worked primarily with Panasonic’s HVX200, a dedicated HD videocamera, but in recent months I’ve joined the HDSLR frenzy. I’ve outfitted a Canon 7D to shoot 1920-by-1080 video through 35mm prime and zoom lenses. Rigged with a Zoom sound recorder, wireless lavalier microphones, and a shoulder mount with a five-pound ballast, I shot an entire short documentary in China this summer on the 7D.The results have been spectacular—more film-like than most HD footage—but I did get a lot of strange looks as I climbed the GreatWall lugging this shoulder-mounted still camera with a pistol grip and a sand-bag counterweight up hundreds of stone steps in smoggy Beijing heat.