Blogging "City Island": Why I did it

I wanted to demystify the filmmaking process for Internet audiences, but financiers flipped. Who was right?

Published April 5, 2010 2:16PM (EDT)

Andy Garcia in "City Island."
Andy Garcia in "City Island."

From the beginning of its production, "City Island" was positioned by me as a movie based in the era of information democracy. It's a movie about ordinary (sort of) everyday people and their trials and travails. I wanted the act of making it to feel open and ordinary as well. Hence my decision to appeal to an Internet audience by demystifying the process of filmmaking. I decided to blog the behind-the-scenes making of the film, posting outtakes as well as on-set clips every day and discussing the progress of the film as it was being made.

I don't think I'm the first person to have done this -- at least I hope not. I've heard that Peter Jackson posted clips of "Lord of the Rings" as he was shooting. Perhaps we were the first relatively mainstream movie -- in other words with a cast of actors who you've heard of -- to have opened the doors to the set quite so thoroughly. In any event, the immediate effect was for the hits on my little blog, to double overnight. People loved seeing the filmmaking process exposed! And why not? Movies are over a century old and by now most of us have some idea of what goes into making them. Seeing the process unfold on a daily basis not only fills in the gaps of this fascinating process, it allows you to feel like part of the filmmaking family. And If you prefer to experience the finished movie itself and nothing else, you're free not to look at the blog. Right? So, I reasoned, there was little to be lost -- the clips I posted were short and mostly funny goofs. The interest that the "film diary" was provoking naturally seemed good for the movie's profile. Who could begrudge a little advance publicity?

Still, a week or so into shooting, somebody did. I got a rather stern e-mail (and a series of worried calls from my producers) saying that one of the financing entities behind the movie had stumbled upon my blog and weren't at all happy with what I was doing. I was told in no uncertain terms to take down the outtake clips from YouTube and not post any more "raw" footage. I was harming the potential of the film by exposing the "mistakes" we were making along the way. And, of course, piracy was a constant threat and here I was, inviting the pirates into our cozy little den.

My reaction? Fear and shame. Suddenly I was in sixth grade again.

I felt the terror of having made the authorities angry and I quickly pleaded for forgiveness. After all, this particular authority came with money behind it. And besides I was super-busy making a movie, so who had time to argue? I said I would take down the clips, cease and desist, and just go ahead and shoot our little old movie -- no behind-the-scenes blogging required. I posted a short item telling readers that we would no longer be showing the outtakes, but that I would continue to share what information I could on the progress of the movie.

To my surprise we got quite a few comments -- about 10, as I recall -- expressing some indignation. Well, what are you gonna do? Move on.

And then I got to thinking. Maybe the financiers were right, maybe they weren't. Why not discuss the whole issue on the blog? Perhaps my audience might chime in with their opinions. Even though conventional wisdom would say that continuing the argument in print could be construed as controversial and provocative, it would be done on my blog, not in a public newspaper. And what is a blog but literally a web-log, a diary of sorts, something that can be as personal or public, as private or demonstrative as the blogger chooses it to be. Only the blogger controls the blog. It is, truly, the freest form of writing we have yet developed. No editors, no financiers, no guidelines ... but, an audience.

On our next weekend off, I sat down and banged out a blog entry called: "Information Democracy: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love YouTube." Underneath a massive still of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, I posted the following piece:

Last week I was asked by one of the production entities helping to finance my film "City Island" to stop posting clips of the dailies. Actually I wasn't asked to do so, I was ordered to do so. Being in mid-filming and this not exactly being a priority of my day, I told them it was not a problem. So the clips came down.

But now I wonder: Why did they ask me to do this? And what message does my compliance with their request actually send? Having had a few days to think this one over, I'm gradually coming to some conclusions and am ultimately glad that this controversy -- minor though it is -- has reared its head. I was especially interested to see how many readers of the blog wrote in protesting the removal of the clips. This, more than anything, told me that I was on to something with the whole notion of blogging a film production and sharing the experience as well as sharing the bits of the mosaic -- the "dailies" -- that go into the end result.

So, in order of the above questions. First: They asked me to remove the clips because of "piracy" issues and fear that the small amounts of the film that I'm sharing could possibly appear to other buyers as "unpolished" or "unrepresentative" of what the final product will be. OK. But what is piracy? It's taking something for free that should have a monetary value and profiting off it. So my question is: What could possibly be done with any of the dailies clips I've posted that would provide monetary gain? Would anybody pay cash for a 10- to 30-second clip of my film? Clearly the answer to this is no. As to how representative of the final product the dailies are, I argue that they are both completely unrepresentative while at the same time super-representative in their rawness and thus a good deal more tantalizing than, say, a slick little trailer. When I show you a piece of my dailies (and believe me I'm like all good directors -- I ain't showing nothing that I'm not proud of) I'm showing you part of the process we go through in achieving the end result. One of the reasons outtakes are so fascinating and elucidating (and I'm a big fan of DVD-extra outtakes for old movies -- check out the new "My Man Godfrey" edition with some fine Carole Lombard and William Powell outtakes) is that they provide a view of the meta-film, the other movie that's happening while the end result is achieved. Robert Altman used to insist that the cast and crew watch the dailies together at the end of the day because, he said, "the real movie is in the dailies." (This was also Altman's way of encouraging his actors to improvise and then feeling free to discard 90 percent of it without guilt since they'd already seen and admired their work in the dailies.) Dailies are an entirely different view of the movie that will eventually emerge. I think it's important and not at all harmful to let people in on how the process works. That old "don't show the magic" line feels last-century to me. By now, the bizarre and beautiful process that moviemaking is is known to many, many people. And if it's not, I think it's my right to share the process. What are you going to do? Pirate the process?

As to what message I'm sending by complying with the request to not show the dailies, clearly I'm agreeing that the last century and its thinking is still correct, that the world order is unchanged, that 19th- and 20th-century notions of ownership and control (as well as 19th- and 20th-century fears) are still wagging the dog. But let's face it: Even large corporations realize that in the current world, any viral presence is a help, not a hindrance. Clips of movies on YouTube are a non-starter in terms of harming people's copyrights. Clips are clips. Not movies. They are their to educate you on the existence of the finished product, not rob you of the opportunity to see it.

A final word about this subject for now. We live in the age of branding. If you're an artist and haven't found a brand for yourself, chances are you're marching uphill on an increasingly lonely trip. Nothing I do is "brandable." The movies that I make, and the movies that I watch, are specialty items. The music that I love -- jazz -- is also now considered "boutique." (That means unpopular to large masses.) With the advent of YouTube, the cultural treasures that I've clung too ever since I was a kid are now available to share with others and -- I hope -- are being given new life because of this availability. Hence this blog -- which I started in order to justify the hours I was spending on YouTube watching clips of forgotten movies and dead musicians. The glory of the information democracy is in the ability to reinterpret the very existence of this material without profit being an issue. Thus people post short brilliant clips of music or dance from old two-hour movies that are simply not movies that most people would watch in their entirety anymore. Perhaps the sum of the parts of "Down Argentine Way" no longer speaks to many people ... but the parts certainly do. The numbers featuring the fabulous Nicholas Brothers deserve to stand on their own no matter the dubious value of the rest of the structure that was initially there to support them.

Similarly, I don't know how many people will see "City Island" when it's done. Plenty I hope. Some readers of this blog will probably seek it out and some may have, by the time of its release, moved on. But if right now people are interested in the story of how a movie is made, that part of the process should be shared should I choose to do so. And posting information about the film -- production reports, call sheets, dailies -- can't, I believe, truly do any harm and probably can do some good in terms of letting people know that we're out here, creating this particular film. I'm not sure that removing the clips was the right decision.

The response was instantaneous. I usually averaged anywhere from three to eight comments per post. The next day -- even before the next day -- there were 20 comments posted. Some were understanding of the financiers' postion. Some were over the top angry at having had "their" dailies removed. (I rather liked this -- it strengthened my feeling that "City Island" was a movie that belonged to "the people.")

But most of the comments were philosophical and articulate and demonstrated a clear understanding of the reality of 21st-century communication: they seemed to say that an opportunity was being lost, one that was both helpful to the movie and positive to those who were interested in the film's "private" life. Certainly none of the material was grossly misrepresentative of the work in progress. And how many DVD extras are we all used to seeing these days, and what are those extras usually composed of? Deleted scenes and goofy outtakes.

Further, most of the comments indicated a genuine goodwill toward our endeavor, a delight that we had invited strangers into a usually private, mysterious process and welcomed them without the normal, paranoid reserve.

It was, really, a karma thing. As I said, it always felt to me good with this particular project to project an air of brotherhood, or solidarity. We were all making this movie together.

And to their credit, the production company that objected heard the crowd, saw the writing on the wall. Suddenly, we were thrust into the last scene of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin's "Meet John Doe" -- where the people dictate policy and save the life of the man (Gary Cooper, natch) who they've invested their faith in, who represents their true interests. "There's your answer," says a scrappy little fellow to Edward Arnold. "The people!"

The company who'd objected to the clips now admitted that perhaps they'd been a little -- sudden in their opinion. Perhaps they'd simply been surprised at what they'd seen and unprepared for such a bold experiment. I could put the clips back, they said. But no edited scenes (which was fine by me -- I hadn't been posting assembled footage anyway). And keep the clips short, under 30 seconds. (No problem, said I. The Internet attention span doesn't really go beyond 30 seconds anyway). And no production stills -- they need to be approved by actors. (Yes, yes, of course.) And, by the way, Raymond ...


How many hits are you getting on that blog of yours?

Close to a thousand a day.

Good. Keep it up.

By Raymond De Felitta

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