Movies are tough. Setting out to make a film, like asking a pretty girl on a date, always presents the strong possibility of failure, and a small hope of success. Camera Noise was my first solo fiction film, and I was terrified to start it. I spent the beginning of 2001 watching personal documentaries like Ed Pincus’ Diaries, Sherman’s March, The Tourist, Playing the Part, How Can You go Wrong?, and Look Back Don’t Look Back. By February 2001, I had written an outline and I wasn’t planning to write any more. I had the noble tradition of Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman to follow in, and writing a script would break that tradition. Plus, I was lazy. I had an idea: to lampoon the pretentiousness of student films and make it as boring as possible while still being funny. Beyond that concept, I didn’t have many details worked out.
I knew that there would be two main characters; Kyle and his girlfriend. Casting the role of Kyle was easy, but I didn’t know who would play his girlfriend. There was no real-life counterpart to take the role, so I had to turn to Harvard’s acting scene. Unfortunately I didn’t know many funny actresses. Despite designing posters for many plays on campus, I never actually went to the shows I worked on. I generally hate theater. But I had a friend who knew everyone, so in the beginning of March I sent an email to campus celebrity and all-around funnyman BJ Averell asking him for a list of the best comic actresses at Harvard. And naturally, since they would be playing the role of my girlfriend, they would have to be attractive as well. Just a few hours later I had my list: according to BJ, five of the funniest and most beautiful actresses on campus.
After meeting with my potential actresses, there were two who clearly stood above the rest. One had dark hair, a slight frame, and an obvious sarcastic edge to her that meshed with the concept I had recently come up with for the relationship Kyle had with his girlfriend. (Actually, I hadn’t so much come up with it as stolen it from Godard’s wacky Week End which I had seen the night before.) The other actress was nothing like what I had pictured. She was the last one I met with, and whenever I mentioned her, all of the actresses before her had immediately said “Oh, I love her!” She was blonde, incredibly cute, and had a sweet high-pitched voice that I thought would never work with the antagonistic relationship I was picturing. But she knew what she was doing. She had done professional voice-over work in the past, taken acting lessons (including soap opera acting, which I thought was an oxymoron) and as she put it, she had a lot of experience with annoying boyfriends. I spent a few days going over the decision in my head. In the end, it came down to giving up my earlier idea of the character and going with the actress who was obviously the best. It didn’t hurt that she was also beautiful. So I chose Jennie Tarr to play the part of Kyle’s girlfriend.
I was taking a gamble on Jennie. The only role I had seen her in before was “Head Fly Girl” in Jesus Christ Superstar which didn’t exactly showcase her abilities as a comedian. So I decided to shoot a scene on video before I used up one of my seven precious rolls of 16mm film. Before we started, we talked about possible topics of discussion. Since I had never been in a relationship before, Jennie’s experience with annoying boyfriends really paid off. She came up with several good ideas right away. We shot a discussion between the two of us that eventually became the first and third scenes in the film. As soon as I turned the camera on, she went into action. I gave her almost no direction, but she figured it out immediately. I was just along for the ride. After 15 minutes of the most excruciating discussion I had ever had, I couldn’t take it anymore and turned off the camera. We both breathed a sigh of relief as we came out of character. I knew I had made the right decision. I rewound the tape and we went over the scene we had just shot. It was fantastic. Unfortunately the tape has been long-since reused, but my roommate Greg claims it was better than the version that ended up in the film. We both agreed exactly on what worked and what didn’t. Later that night, I emailed Jennie the only set of notes I’ve ever given her. They were things that I wanted us both to remember for when we shot the real thing.
> Writing “Hi Kyle” on paper
> “I can’t believe my boyfriend just said…”
> Funny faces
> All my friend’s boyfriends come over
> Remember to change angles
> You’re a part of my life
> If you put this in my movie I’ll kill you
> Come film my rehearsal
> Reassuring that you look pretty
> Camera as an extension of my body
> Unzip shirt to look better
> You know what I’m doing tonight? I have rehearsal, but I thought you
> might ask My movie is about my life, my play is my life. Semantics.
We shot the scene on film a few days later. It took me a few days to get the footage back because of a huge snowstorm but when I finally got it on the editing table and started synching up the sound it was one of the happiest single moments of my life. Jennie was fantastic. She was bringing my idea to life in ways I could never have imagined. I sat there watching the scene over and over again with a huge grin on my face. And I’m not proud of it, but I must admit that I giggled with glee. Sitting there watching that footage, I fell in love with Jennie. It was something I had worried about going into the project, but I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t let it happen. I was very naive. But I was determined not to ruin our on-screen chemistry by doing something as stupid as asking her on a date, so I tried to keep things strictly professional for the duration of the shoot.
After the success of the first shoot I decided to film Kyle’s opening monologue. My film professor Mani Kaul suggested having Kyle hold a notebook in his hands, as if he had prepared something to say, but have him never look at it. Mani called it Godardian. I called it funny. So I wrote out a monologue and set up my room. I lit a fire in the fireplace because it felt like something Kyle would do to impress the audience-to make it look like Masterpiece Theatre. I wanted everything in the scene to appear planned, even the roommate’s intrusion. When Greg comes in right after Kyle says “my roommate could come in at any moment and completely ruin the shot,” this is a cue that Kyle has given Greg to come in and ruin the shot. However, Kyle hadn’t planned it out beyond that and Greg doesn’t know what to do once he has come in, so they talk uncomfortably until the film runs out.
Our next shoot turned out to be my favorite scene in the film. It was the scene where Kyle tells Jennie that he had an affair and she thinks it will make their relationship stronger. Before casting Jennie I was never sure how the girlfriend would react to Kyle’s story. I had toyed with the idea of having her figure out that that he was lying and he was just doing this for the sake of his film, but I didn’t really like that idea because it seemed like it would end up being too confrontational. Confrontation is exactly what Kyle wanted, so I couldn’t have any of that. After I cast Jennie I knew her character wouldn’t confront Kyle that way. So I came up with her delusional concept of the affair making their relationship stronger. It was an instance of completely opposing expectations making a great comic scene.
When we went out to shoot the scene I had two magazines of film loaded up. I had decided at the last minute to shoot the scene outdoors. I had only bought 800 ASA film stock because I wanted to have that grainy, no-lighting look that says “reality” to most people. Luckily I had found half a roll of 50 ASA film in the back of my fridge, left over from an earlier project. So we were moving the equipment to another location and I asked Jennie to carry one of the magazines. As she picked it up, somehow the latch had opened up and the top flipped open, exposing a full 400 foot roll. I ran over in extreme slow-mo and closed the case, but it was obviously too late. I had just lost a huge portion of my raw film stock. I kept my cool, but I was very worried. We went ahead and shot the scene on the other roll and had a lot of film left over. So just to run off the extra 100 feet I had Jennie act as if Kyle had told her to act upset. Her character is supposed to be an actress, so why not? She did the best “bad acting” I’ve ever seen. Her character was such a bad actor she couldn’t even stay in character; yelling out “I don’t care if you love me or not, I don’t love you!” and following it with a “Just kidding,” under her breath. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. In fact, at that point you can actually hear me lose it for a second, although in my defense it still works with my character.
Later that week I shot the scene in Kyle’s dining hall which he tries to film a conversation with his friends. I hadn’t pictured the Girlfriend character in the scene originally, but Jennie had been doing so well I wanted her to be in every scene. Unfortunately she had rehearsals for a play she was in that was opening that weekend, so she couldn’t do it. I gathered a few people together and told them to have a boring conversation. Kyle wants to show how fun and interesting his friends are but it doesn’t work because they’re uncomfortable with the constant presence of the camera. Occasionally Kyle would turn off the camera but leave the sound rolling and complain to them that they weren’t being funny or interesting enough. My friend BJ Averell, who had suggested Jennie in the first place, was supposed to be there, but he showed up late. We were right in the middle of shooting when he showed up and he sat down completely in character. It was a great spontaneous performance. Unfortunately, in an example of life imitating art imitating life, the scene just wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to. It was too boring. The bad sound was too bad. And I learned that most people don’t realize that you can turn off the picture while shooting film and keep the sound going. I used black during the time the camera had been turned off, and my test audiences didn’t understand what it meant. It was clear that it was supposed to be a boring scene, but I realized that I just needed to establish that and move on, so I cut about 75% of what I originally wanted to use.
The next day I shot the only scene that was completely cut from the film. It was based on the idea that Kyle had seen David Holzman’s Diary, thought it was real, and loved it. So, remembering how much drama it had caused for David, Kyle decides to film his girlfriend while she is sleeping. Of course, it doesn’t work out the way he wants it to. Unlike David’s girlfriend, Jennie doesn’t sleep naked; she sleeps with a huge sweatshirt and sweatpants. And she isn’t upset when he films her sleeping. She doesn’t even notice because she’s too excited that he came over. This was inspired by the discussion they had in the first scene we shot about how Kyle never sleeps over. I lit the scene with just a desk lamp next to Jennie’s bed and it ended up looking really nice on the 800ASA stock. I planned a whole sequence about David Holzman’s Diary where Kyle does a voiceover about what a great movie it is, and actually shows that scene when David films his girlfriend sleeping. Unfortunately, when I was putting it all together the whole thing seemed unnecessary, and the film was already too long as it was, so I had to take it out. It was tough at the time because Jennie is really great in the scene. But I’m glad I did it now because it keeps the film kid-and-grandparent-friendly, and I didn’t have to deal with getting permission to use the footage.
That weekend my sister Emily came in to visit me and I figured two birds, one stone. I wanted to have a scene where I complained to a friend about the state of my movie but I wasn’t sure who the actor would be. I knew Emily would do a good job, so I brought her down to a room with a horrible buzzing noise because I wanted the sound to be bad. She was exhausted and it was really late at night so she didn’t say much, and I had a lot to say anyway. I didn’t really appreciate how good her performance was until I saw it with an audience and her facial expressions—which I took for granted coming from my sister—got huge laughs. Her sarcastic detachment from the film (I told her almost nothing about it) was exactly right.
So of course Kyle had to tell his parents he was gay. I had originally pictured just a single shot like the opening monologue, but I was trying to put Jennie in as much of the film as I could so I decided to put her in this scene as well. I approached this scene the way I approached every scene in the film. I asked myself “What are Kyle’s expectations for this scene and how can I frustrate those expectations?” Kyle expects his parents to freak out when he tells them he’s gay. And what could be more absurd than having your girlfriend sitting next to you running her hands through your hair while you try to convince your parents you’re gay? Of course, I must admit that my infatuation with Jennie at the time probably made it easier for me to come up with that idea.
A lot of people thought I should really call up my parents and tell them I was gay. But I wanted to have complete control over the way the conversation went and besides, I didn’t want to confuse my parents. My basic model for the conversation was Peter Sellers’ conversation with Premier Kissoff in Dr. Strangelove. I hate to make the comparison because the scene isn’t half as funny as Dr. Strangelove, but you know, full disclosure and all that. I shot five and a half minutes of me stammering and Jennie… distracting me. I had no idea what I was going to say until I started, and Jennie’s reactions helped me come up with jokes that I wouldnxt have thought of otherwise. My favorite is when Jennie laughed a little too loud and Kyle had to explain to his parents that they were watching Seinfeld. When I got the film back, however, I was very disappointed. Five and a half minutes is a loooong time. I had no cutting points, and nothing to cut to of course. And I found myself becoming increasingly unhappy with my physical performance. Whenever Jennie would try to touch me I would try to brush her off, but it was very unconvincing. It seemed forced. I saw only one two options. Either re-shoot, which went against all my principles at the time, or jump cuts. I went with jump cuts. I cut out all of the parts that I didn’t like (basically any time I moved) and any extraneous conversation, and then threw in a few “cut gags” like when Jennie’s legs move on and off my lap in a split second. I’ve come to really like jump cuts, and I recently made a 12 minute video which is one shot, very aggressively jump cut.
After the phone call, I still had a few scenes left to shoot and a limited amount of stock. I really didn’t want to lose that exposed roll of film, so I decided that rather than giving up on it, I would incorporate it into the film. So I came up with a scene in which Jennie would be helping Kyle load his film and she would accidentally open the magazine and expose it. Art imitates life. I wanted to do something special for Jennie because this was probably our last shoot together and I was so happy with the enormous contribution she had made to my film. I was also a little infatuated with her. I wanted to give her flowers, but I was too shy to do it myself. So I bought a few roses and I put them in a trail along the hall that she had to come through to get to the room we were filming in. I left notes with each rose explaining what the scene was and that I was going to start shooting as soon as she walked in. I had a lot of time before she was supposed to show up, so I set up the camera next to an editing table and talked to the camera, and Kyle explained that he was having trouble making the sound synch up right with the image, and that Jennie and he were celebrating their anniversary. A few people walked into the room while I was waiting so there were a few false starts. At least one person came to the conclusion that I no longer made any distinction between the film and reality. I think he had a point. Jennie showed up and played the scene perfectly. I was nervous and I cut it pretty short. After I shut the camera off Jennie said it was the most romantic thing she had ever seen, which made me very happy, even though it was my character who had done it, not me. When I got the footage back, it really wouldn’t synch up. The camera had been set to record at 28 frames per second and I had forgotten to check it. Life imitates art. I used it anyway because I was starting to realize that out-of-synch audio can be funny, and it lead into the later scene at home, which I was already planning to shoot out of synch.
The scene at home was the obligatory appearance of Kyle’s family. I went home for a few days during spring break and intentionally shot at 18 frames per second using the partially exposed roll of film. It was uneventful, and went exactly as I expected it to. My mother hammed it up for the camera and my cat attacked me unprovoked.
I spent the rest of spring break editing the movie. During that week, a friend of mine who was in my film class suggested asking Jennie on a date on camera. I said no way. What a terrible thing to put her on the spot like that. And besides, she’ll say no. Then a few other members of the class heard about the idea and managed to convince me that I ought to do it. I was sure she would say no, but I realized that it would be a great punchline if even the real Kyle couldn’t make things work out the way he wanted them to.
I had some vague idea that I would need a transition from the fake world of Kyle and Jennie to the real world of Kyle and Jennie, so I recorded a phone conversation with Jennie when she got back to Cambridge, setting up a “mystery shoot” for the end of the week. It wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for me to leave her mostly in the dark before a shoot started, but I refused to tell her anything about this one. Oddly enough, just as a joke she asked me if I was recording the call. I said no, which I thought would be funny. I didn’t end up using the scene because I didn’t really need a transition between fiction and reality (aside from the credits) and the movie was already too long.
Before I got to the big night, I had Robb Moss and Ross McElwee come in to shoot the scene of them watching Kyle’s 2-hour rough cut, and to record their voiceovers. The scene with the three of us lined up next to each other all appearing very similar was the payoff for my growing a beard over the previous 5 months and wearing a fleece vest around all the time. Robb and Ross’ voiceover is an inside joke for people who have seen their films. Both of them use a lot of voiceover in their movies, so I thought it would be funny if I kept them silent when they were on camera and had them say everything in voiceover. I actually shot the images of the email before they recorded it. I wanted to get in real tight for most of the words, but I couldn’t get the camera close enough to my computer monitor and still stay in focus. So I took a screen capture of the email and zoomed in on it in Photoshop. Since I didn’t know how long they were going to take to read it, I just barely had enough footage for the whole thing. I ended up cutting out large chunks of what I wrote for time and clarity, and you can see some of what got cut out in the wider shot of the email. That shot always gets a big laugh and always surprises me. It’s the only laugh I wasn’t expecting in the film.
And then came the big night. I was going to ask Jennie on a date. I shot on a nice 200 ASA stock and used actual lights! It was lit like a fiction film. Get it? Get it? The only real part of the movie is also the most staged! Oh, the irony. Jennie’s rehearsal went late, but I was late as well. The room I had originally planned to shoot in was being occupied by another class. So I used an alternate room. It was the same room I shot the “opening the film” scene in. And the white screen that I shot it against is the same screen that Robb and Ross were supposedly watching Kyle’s rough cut on. I was really nervous. I had other people actually do the lighting for me because I couldn’t concentrate. Randy Bell, Agnes Chu, and Pacho Velez really helped out a lot that night. Although they can also be blamed for convincing me to do it in the first place.
Finally she arrived, dressed up and made up for the lights. She had lost her wallet the day before, so that morning she had walked into downtown Boston (which is quite a trek) to get her hair died blonde for a play she was in. With the lighting, makeup, and blonde hair she looks very different from the rest of the film. As soon as she pops up in that shot, it’s obvious that something is different. During the week Jennie had tried to figure out what was going to happen on the mystery shoot. To throw her off the trail I had asked her if she had any of those giant foam hands that you can get at sporting events. This had convinced her that for some reason we would be going to a basketball game. She had no idea what was really going on.
Once we had the lighting right, I cleared the set so it was just the two of us. Before I started the camera rolling I told her “I don’t want you to act, I just want you to react normally to what happens.” It’s possible that I could have been more vague, but I’m not sure how. It sounds like a kind of lame direction you might give if you wanted your actor to be more natural. And after I told her that I really had recorded that phone call, Jennie was a little confused. I turned on the camera and stumbled my way through a setup for what I was about to do.
There is a split second when it suddenly dawns on her what is about to happen, that she completely lets her guard down. You can see it in her eyes. It’s the only real moment of the film. But it’s gone just as suddenly as it appears, and she’s back to acting. There is a layer of truth underneath it; she really is completely flustered, but it’s acting just the same. She agreed to go on a date with me, I went in for a hug (wanted to go for a kiss, which would have been more cinematic, but I chickened out) and then I turned off the camera.
The charade continued for two days before Jennie told me what had happened. Yes we went on a date. But she had only agreed to go on a date because she thought it was what I wanted for the film. In fact, for the film I had wanted the complete opposite. I wanted her to say no. It would be a punchline. But it turns out that I was beaten at my own game. The real Kyle can’t make things turn out the way he wants them to in real life either. It’s not a punchline; it’s a kind of sweet pseudo-happy ending. And best of all, it immediately gave me an idea for my next film.
It took me a few weeks to get back to shooting. The date incident took a lot out of me. I kept editing, and there were two more scenes to shoot. I wanted to have a scene where Kyle tried to pick up girls. For a while it was set at a party, but there was no way I was going to organize a party just so I could shoot it. I had tried that on another film, and found that it’s very hard to pull off realistically. And I didn’t want to just show up at a party. Then I thought of a bookstore. I think I read once that it’s common practice for single intellectuals to cruise the stacks at their local bookstore. What better place for a young man making an “intellectual film?” Unfortunately, book stores are businesses, and businesses are afraid of cameras. I had to get permission from the owner of the bookstore, who finally said it was fine but I couldn’t film any customers. That was fine with me, because I was building my army of short, blonde girls to act in the scene.
In the end I got 3 to actually show up. I wanted them all to look like Jennie. I like the idea of guys having types that they go after. I didn’t really know any of them, but I was getting near the end of my shooting period and I had to get things moving. They all turned out great. I just told them to go along with whatever I said, and to act exactly as they would if some weirdo came up to them with a camera and a sound guy and asked them on a date. They all shot at different times, so none of them was influenced by the other’s performance. The funniest single shot in the film is during this scene, when the second girl (Susana Canseco) shows interest in Kyle’s sound guy (Jeff Sheng). The look on Jeff’s face as Kyle pans over to him is absolutely priceless and completely unplanned.
The last thing I shot was the final monologue. I arranged everything very carefully, lit the room with a giant studio light bounced off the ceiling, and said whatever I could come up with. I really did run out of film at the point it cuts out so there’s no synch point. I had to guess on the editing table and when I finally projected it really large I realized that itxs about 5 frames out of synch. But I didn’t see any reason to fix it. Kyle would never notice a problem like that. Besides, I had wanted to have an out-of-synch scene in the film somewhere.
Once everything was shot, the editing process was very simple. I shot more than one take on only two shots; the very first shot, and the “opening the film” shot. Both times it was because I had a specific idea in mind and it wasn’t quite right the first time. Since the rest of the film was very broad in my mind, there was no way to get it wrong. So it was just a matter of stringing together all the good stuff. I found the order of scenes immediately. It wasn’t the same as my outline, but the way the footage came out suggested an order that just seemed right. I had to write some voiceover, which was difficult because I kept getting too winky. I had to remember that Kyle is not self aware at all. As soon as Kyle understands what he is doing wrong he stops being funny. I had to write in character instead of as myself. Once I managed to get into character, it was easy to come up with annoying things like correcting Jennie on how many months have three-day weekends. Kyle was trying to win the argument on the editing table because he couldn’t do it in real life.
The first public screening was fantastic. It was a crowd full of people in the know. They had all seen the stuff I was parodying. They understood why it’s funny when Kyle zooms in on Jennie to get her reaction to his affair. They applauded so loudly at the end of the film that they drowned out my last voiceover. Later I found out that some people think the film is real until that last scene. That still surprises me because the whole time I was working under the assumption that if people weren’t in on the joke, then it couldn’t be funny. Hal Hartley later told me that when he saw it he thought it was funny, but he wasn’t sure if it was all just at this poor guy’s expense.
Jennie loved the film too. She came to the premiere, and we hadn’t really spoken much since the date, so I was a little nervous about seeing her again, but I never had any doubt that she would love it. She, along with everyone else in the audience, recognized the power of her performance. The next day I ran into a woman who works in the film department who told me she couldn’t help falling in love with Jennie. I told her I knew exactly what she meant. I still know. In fact, with a little distance, and a chance to get over her, I understand it even better now. I don’t watch Camera Noise much anymore, but every time I do, for 29 minutes I’m in love with Jennie Tarr again.