Interviews

BORGES AND I: CINEMA’S FIRST SPY CAMERA FEATURE

By • Aug 31st, 2011 •

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Sitting in the Anthology Film Archives in New York watching a 74-minute 35mm print of a digital film shot using a spy camera with actors that were never sure when and where the camera was, along with unsuspecting caught-on-camera pedestrians accosted by an American on the streets of London, I realize the ironical facets and mechanics that encapsulate this project, as well as the brilliance of this film which could easily be snatched up by some Hollywood beast who would spit out a moneymaking blockbuster starring Drew Barrymore as the love interest. “Hollywoodized”, the artistry and commitment to the camera truth of this Indy feature would be forever lost.

Using Skype, I spoke to Yoni Bentovim about his film and asked for his thoughts on Hollywood remaking his film with Drew Barrymore. He laughed and stated that he had actually spoken to Barrymore’s people, made an offer for her to appear in BORGES AND I and added, “She missed the boat.”

Londoners Yoni Bentovim and his wife Emily Harris co-directed and helmed this project. They found inspiration from a Jim McBride film from the late 60’s entitled, DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY (just released on DVD by Kino Lorber). Both films, BORGES and DAVID HOLZMAN, give the audience insight into a man’s journey of introspection. From McBride’s film, Holzman speaks of Jean Luc Godard answering the question, what is film? He quotes, “Film is truth twenty-four times a second.” It is, unless it is perpetrated by a fraud. BORGES’ main actor, Tim Harris spoke of this quandary. “I felt guilty a lot of the time because they [Londoners] did not know they were being filmed and I was not being me.” He went about his acting by secretly taping his day-to-day existence from his point of view.

Chris McColl, who wrote the script, was at the Anthology screening to promote BORGES AND I, and spoke of the film’s incarnation. “Emily and Yoni wanted to make a feature. They had made a short film called, THREE TOWERS. They had many meetings and were told once they had a feature made to come back. They could not get a budget so they attempted to figure the lowest possible budgeted film that they can make themselves. They stumbled across an actual spy shop in London and the equipment to make the film was there.”

Tim adds, “It was definitely Emily and Yoni’s goal to make the first feature ever recorded with a spy camera. When I first got the script it was an early version that was already mixed with what’s real and what’s not. The equipment itself was cool and I think they thought of me partly because they know that I like gadgets. It was a fun project and still is a fun project because it is about filming, being filmed, looking and being seen or seen and being looked at, but also about the process of what does it mean that we have all of this technology where we can look at ourselves and look at each other all the time.”

Emily and Yoni met at The London Film School in 2000. Yoni remembers, “…She was my First Assistant Director on a fifth term short film I directed. She was in 1st year and I was in 2nd year, we clicked creatively and have worked together ever since.”

Via email, Emily reveals that she and her husband only worked on 35mm and on 16mm in school. She wrote: “Our ideas and style as well as experience lent themselves to the film format. This was very frustrating as an Indy filmmaker because shooting on film requires a lot more money than we had available. There were only two options: spend more time raising finances or shoot digitally. Well, we were itching to make another film and didn’t want to simply take one of our scripts which was conceived for film and shoot it digitally. Something that is very important to us is that a project should match its medium. We didn’t just want to shoot it digitally but wanted a digital idea. So, we came up with BORGES & I.

It could ONLY have been shot digitally. The main actor is the camera.”

Similarly, Jim McBride was faced with the dilemma of acquiring camera equipment and the lack of funds. McBride claimed that he and friend Kit Carson used, “Simply what we could get.” Their plan of action was to shoot DAVID HOLZMAN when they rented equipment for a paying job. With weekend shoots and limited film stock, the cinema verite style, precursor to reality programming, would inspire Yoni and Emily over forty years later. However, in a future filled with so many technical possibilities, filmmakers continue to grapple with limited monetary resources to fulfill their ideal vision.

While Tim is a self-proclaimed gadget lover and embraces technology for the further progression of cinema, he profiles his sister Emily and brother-in-law Yoni as somewhat cinema purists. “Emily and Yoni are much more rooted, at least from my point of view, in film, organic celluloid being projected on a big screen. Part of the strategy was for them to make a feature even though it is much more do-able now than it was ever before. It still is expensive if you are going to get really nice cameras and lenses. Because it was integral to the concept of the film and the story, it made it possible for them to play with the relatively lo-fi camera lenses that make-up high-tech spy equipment. But, compared to a film camera, it’s not as beautiful as it could be. If they were going to have it their way, they probably would have shot with a beautiful lens and with a beautiful film stock in Black and White like THREE TOWERS was.

Yoni thought of Tim for the feature since he is very physical. The role demanded the main character to conceal a spy camera as well as batteries and sound equipment. Although it is nothing like the cumbersome equipment that could be seen in DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, it was still challenging.

Tim detailed the logistics of shooting. “It was tricky too because there were times I would be caught up in the conversation. And then I would realize that I have to move to get the shot so I would stretch or I would step back and people would move towards me. I was very aware of the body language because I would frame the shot as I would talk to them.”

The shooting required a crew to be nearby to assist. The batteries required charging and replacing, unsuspecting people would be pointed out for Tim to approach, releases had to be secured. This crew amounted to the directors, the PA, the sound guy, and the production manager, as well as the actors. Occasionally, Tim was left on his own, “Sometimes, Yoni would send me off and tell me to come back for lunch.”

Approaching pedestrians or going door-to-door yielded varied reactions. Many declined to speak, one man slammed his front door shut, and others were willing to speak at length. The film edited conversations that extend well over 10 minutes. It was rather a bold task for the actor.

“Being an outgoing American in London made it easier. I don’t know what it would have been like here in New York. In L.A. it would have been really difficult because people don’t talk to each other like that. I would stop a stranger in the street and ask what is their perception of me at that moment. That is a disarming question and an intellectual question. So people would think, ‘OK, you don’t want anything from me?’ No. I just want to hear your thoughts. Some people really liked it and others were confused by it. Again, I think it is a very specific thing to England and to London, as to some of the characters that I ran into. ‘Oh, you look kind of scruffy’ or ‘I don’t think that you should talk to strangers on the street.’ There’s a quite a lot of that English…I don’t know what to call it…wit or English attitude.”

Unbeknownst to Tim were the identities of the other actors cast. While on the street like a spy, he would encounter the contacts that were set-up. Of the people cast was his love interest. As is the norm in the world of cinema, there is gossip about leading men and leading ladies. (Word was that Tim “had a thing” for Sally Scott. In true investigative reporter fashion, it was paramount to get to the bottom of this. Was it Sally or was it her character Kate that Tim was attracted to? Tim’s official statement is: ” I think it’s fair to say we all had a crush on her.” This, as he pointed out, is an actual line from the film. Perhaps it was the idea of a woman like Sally, or is it Kate?)

The perils of filmmaking without permits or the appearance of actual film equipment did teeter on the brink of bodily harm for Tim Harris. “The mirror shot took a long time. That was actually much weirder than talking to people. I am walking down the street talking to myself in a mirror. People are looking at me and I was sure someone was going to lock me up. There is one moment in the chase scene when I am being chased by the big guy; I am running with this big equipment, this belt pack thing that is shaking. He told me that there were a couple of people who were about to knock me over for him. They thought that I was a thief running away from the English guy because I am a little darker, a scruffy faced guy running away from a pasty pink guy yelling “Oy, oy.” I think we got lucky that nobody tackled me.”

Chris McColl was asked to write the script and to play Tim’s brother. From New York he went back and forth with Yoni and Emily via emails prior to a script reading with Tim in New York before shooting commenced later in the year during the summer in London. He was challenged with writing a character for himself.

“We had some issues around that. They described the character to me of Tim’s brother and he’s not supposed to be a particularly pleasant guy. And so, I wrote a draft of the script and they came back and said, ‘Oh, this I great, Chris. And we really like it here but there is one problem, the character of Chris. He is really not nasty enough. And so I went back and I rewrote my scenes with Tim and sent it back to them. Yeah, well this is better but he is still not as nasty. And they actually asked, “Do you not want to play the character cause it feels like subconsciously maybe you do not want to be this guy.” I said, no no no! I swear I want to do it. Finally, the third time around I got it to where they were happy. And it was kind of fun to play a real obnoxious jerk. I think every actor says it’s fun to play a bad guy. I see the trailer and I might be the only person in the trailer that swears. So, it’s sort of a thing that I have to feel embarrassed about when I tell friends or tell family. It was easier the second time definitely. The first time, I felt like a fraud because it’s not what I set out to do. I want to write. It was my first love. When they said, “You’d be great in this!” I wasn’t sure that they were right. The other thing too, is that, I felt that I had an advantage. Like Tim said, the actors only got to see bits and pieces of the script. I wrote the damn thing so I know the whole thing.

As a scriptwriter, there is a definite version of the film in the mind’s eye. Once the cameras are rolling and the actors give life to the words on the page, do the characters behave how you created them?

“The funny thing about writing a film is that you sit in your little room and you bash away at the script. You think you are writing one thing. The classic example is the scene with Simeon, the casting director. I wrote this scene that had this Richard Attenborough intensity about it. He was very earnest and that’s not what a casting director is going to be like at all. And Simeon who is an actor, who has seen many dozens of casting directors, knows that when you walk in, they are bored out of their mind. They don’t want anything to do with you, they are just trying to get through the day, get their paycheck, and get out. So, that’s how he played it and it is hysterically funny. Mine wasn’t funny at all but I love watching people pull things out of the stuff that I write that is not at all what I expected. That’s kind of fun.”

How much does the script deviate from the typed pages?

“I don’t know. It’s been so long, I have not gone back to read the script. They really wanted it to feel organic, to feel natural. They gave the script to the actors and let them play around with it. There were key ideas that they wanted to get in. There were monologues that I wrote that were pretty accurate, like the AVATAR monologue in the party scene where Kate brings the entire party to a standstill with this discussion of heavy Hinduism. That is pretty much as I remember writing it. There are one or two others, but Angus played pretty fast and loose with some of the ideas that I threw into the script. But the ideas are still there and that’s the point. I think they wanted a film that was about his idea and the explorations and the parallels of it. But, not so much about adhering to very strict formality of language and structure of dialogue and so on.”

Part of the film contains video diaries that Tim conducted while in London and back home in L.A. with a camera that the directors gave him. He held onto the tapes for a year before they were handed in and doubted if they would be used in the film. The first cut of the film was a darker 80-minute version in Black and White. The second cut was in color with very little narration and voice over.

Chris McColl recounted the experience. “What happened was the narrative wasn’t working for them. The whole subconscious aspect of the thing is something that they wanted to explore. They got accepted to a sort of clinic for directors in Germany and they met this fantastic editor there and mentor to them and they explained the quandary in their project. The editor flew to London and viewed all of the footage including all of Tim’s diary footage.

All three began experimenting with the footage and realized that it was really working. At that point, she exclaimed, “This is great! I can’t help you.” It was not a movie that she was comfortable with but liked where they were going.” In the end, 200 hours of video footage was trimmed to 74-minutes. Yoni summarized the editing process as a ” bloody nightmare.”

Finally the editing nightmare was put to rest. Usually, at this time the distribution nightmare awakens to terrorize the independent filmmaker. How does one scream loud enough to get heard? Yoni and Emily made use of social media to get the word out, and entered the film in the festival circuit.

Emily offers this to those that aspire to recognition for their film. “My number one advice at the moment is be innovative and break distribution conventions. The Internet has opened many avenues for getting your film seen by huge numbers of people.”

The spy camera used to shoot the film was put up for auction on EBAY. The reserve price was not met so it stayed put. But ideas such as this helped eyes see the title of the film and hopefully stirred up interest.

At Raindance, BORGES AND I had two showings. The first was in a small theater that sold out and the second showing was at the biggest available theater and that too sold out. Chris McColl remembers that THE MIGHTY BOOSH comedy team had a documentary screening that was showing at the same time as BORGES that sold out so he speculates that perhaps people showed up expecting something bizarre from BORGES.

In addition to film festivals, available to filmmakers are opportunities to have the film screened. I found this film screening on the site SHOOTING PEOPLE. The screening that I attended had both Chris and Tim doing a Q&A afterwards. Chris was interviewed that evening and Tim met me weeks later on a return trip to New York to talk about the film. It is a laborious group effort to promote this film in Europe and America.

After all of this, ready for a distributor? One major issue that causes setbacks to filmmakers is copyright. BORGES had Roland Heap in charge of music (He also served as the sound recordist.) Roland’s years of experience in London recording studios working with big names was a positive note. He had provided over fifty hours of new and interesting music for the film. So this alleviated any copyright issues. Having been quite thorough about clearing copyrights, Emily admits, “Foolishly however, we did not consider the net! We now have to pay extra for Internet rights…”

With more Internet distribution channels available, perhaps this film will find its way to viewers via that avenue. As for now, what is on the horizon? BORGES can be seen on itzon.tv, an Internet film festival. And word is that Emily has gone into reproduction and stopped production on their latest film.

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