“Four words to live by: prepare, prepare, prepare, improvise.”
Lights Film School recently had the opportunity to connect with Noah Wagner, a New York City-based film and music video director as well as producer at HBO.
Having wrapped a healthy festival run, Noah’s thesis film for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fortissimo, just launched on Vimeo – we were taken by its whimsical spirit, documentary undercurrent, and centrality of its sound design to its story.
Before we dive into the interview, let’s give Fortissimo a watch (and listen)!
Hello, Noah! Thanks for catching up with us here at Lights. Fortissimo tells a story starring Richmond Shepard, the world’s oldest mime. When the film opens, the sun is setting on our hero’s career. Consequently, he abandons miming to explore a more popular line of work – until he meets someone who appreciates his life’s calling and wants to help him re-embrace it.
First, I’m curious to hear how you developed this concept. What drew you to it? At what point did you meet Richmond Shepard?
I wish I could say that I was inspired because I grew up in a mime troupe, but sadly that did not happen.
I tore my Achilles my freshman year of film school. This was also during a semester in which I took a course on the principles of sound design. Suddenly with a lot more time on my hands, I spent many hours in the sound lab, where I quickly came to appreciate the value of what sound can do for a film.
Flash-forward to senior year, and I knew I wanted sound to play an important role in my film. I also knew I wanted some sort of tragic, underappreciated character at the core of the story, and that I wanted to do something very tonally different from many of the dark, brooding student films I had seen in the past.
From there, the idea of an old mime stuck out. While perhaps a clichéd caricature on the surface, I was drawn to the challenge of trying to humanize that character for a contemporary audience. There was also a clear role for sound to play… and frankly, I had just never heard of an old mime before (sorry, puns were plentiful on our set).
I wasn’t sure how we were going to cast it – I assumed we’d find an older actor and perhaps teach him how to mime. But first I had to pitch the project to my class, which required a powerpoint… which required photos. So naturally, I Google-image-searched “old mime” and up popped a high-res photo of this old man in mime make up. Upon clicking, I learned that he was the oldest mime in the world. But even crazier – he taught mime class on Saturdays, 20 blocks from my apartment. It was fate.
So my casting director and I took his delightful class, asked if he’d be interested in being in our film, and the rest is history.
Very cool! How did Richmond influence the writing/storytelling throughout the making of the film? Did you intend to walk the line between narrative and documentary from the very beginning?
This film could have only worked with Richmond. Since he himself is an old mime in a world that perhaps doesn’t fully appreciate his craft, that insight affected the authenticity of his performance immensely.
His input was also integral to the mime performance sequences. In some places, the film’s writers (Max Nicoll and Matt Stephenson) would have very specific screen direction, such as the Ride of the Valkyries sequence, which worked great. But in other places we weren’t sure what was “mime-able”, such as the ending, where the original script just read:
“His performance is more magical than we’ve ever seen”.
For these sequences, Richmond would show me a number of different routines he had perfected over the years. The surgery one stood out to me the most, since it encapsulated our theme of revival.
Interesting. Your decision to weave Shepard’s story into your own lends Fortissimo a feeling of authenticity, even as it flirts with magical realism. How did you get the archival footage that opens the film, Noah? How many minutes/hours of documentary material did you have to work with in the editing room?
For me, the opening match cuts between Shepard’s performances create a feeling of success, so that the reveal at 01:16 comes as a surprise – his golden years led to this? I especially love your decision to change aspect ratios, here, as if a curtain is drawing back to reveal the stage of the present. It’s a wonderful way to transition us out of the archival footage.
Can you talk a bit about your editing workflow for the opening sequence? Did you know what you wanted when you began work with the archival footage, or was it more of a gradual process of discovery?
It’s funny you ask that. When we went into production, there was a whole storyline involving flashbacks to a Young Stanley, for which we cast a younger actor. We even filmed this storyline, which our actor nailed. But once we got into the edit, it didn’t feel right. It was the same issue for the nightmare sequence, as well as the final mime performance – none of them leaped off the screen the way I was realizing they needed to.
So a few months into post-production, my editor (Adrian Carey) and I sat down for dinner and I popped in this hour-long documentary I’d been meaning to watch about Richmond. This is where we discovered the archival footage – stuff that had already been transcoded from old film reels spanning the entirety of Richmond’s 60-year mime career. And Adrian just goes, “You’ve been sitting on this footage for how long!?!”.
So we ripped the DVD, pulled the material into our edit, and Adrian went to town on that opening montage. And it completely transformed the film – further ingraining Richmond’s DNA in the story.
Since it was being taken from an existing piece, we used the pre-edited “selects” that the documentarian had used – we used no raw footage ourselves, as it would have been too expensive to get it all re-transcoded from the original film reels. There were probably 25 minutes of pure archival material in total.
This taught me a very valuable lesson, one that I will always stick to. The filmmaking process is as follows – you write one movie, shoot another movie, and edit a third movie.
In other words, whatever the movie is in script form, that’s only the foundation. That isn’t to say you’re not striving to achieve what’s scripted – that’s absolutely your goal. But there are so many variables and decisions that come into play throughout a film’s creation; it’s naïve to expect your film to end up exactly, 100% as you read it on the page. But therein lies the beauty of creative process – as your film evolves and solidifies over those three phases of creation, there are many opportunities to have discussions with your collaborators and think of ways to make your film even better. In my case I didn’t really have a choice; necessity was the mother of invention.
“You know there are many ways of telling stories without words…” This line, presumably excerpted from the archival footage, kicks off the film. This is no accident – in fact, there’s no further dialogue throughout the film’s thirteen minute running time! Instead, you tell your story with images and sound design.
The girl who befriends the mime has a magical ability to produce sounds with her every touch. Quite simply, the story wouldn’t work without this. Some of the most magical moments revolve around sound, too; I’m thinking especially of the mime’s aural awakening at 05:55.
Was this deep involvement of sound a part of the original creative vision, Noah? Why or why not? At what point did you bring your sound designer and mixer, Arjun Sheth, into the collaboration?
Oh, absolutely – sound is a character in the film unto itself. We actually did a test screening with only temp music and sound design, and it went terribly. I had naïvely assumed people could imagine where we would be going with it in the final version, but I was very, very wrong. Because this is a film that’s so reliant on its soundscape, to outsiders this unfinished version’s pacing seemed clunky and slow, and even worse, the story wasn’t totally clear.
Which is why both Arjun and our music composer Gabriel Gall were absolutely integral to the film’s success. Every sound needed to have character and texture, and in many ways, needed to be more explicit than in your average film, where dialogue props the film up. Sound design was our dialogue.
And let’s not understate the importance of music – that too is a character in the film. Gabriel and I discussed at length the fact that the score needed to influence both how the audience should feel about a scene, but also reflect how the characters felt. There was a lot of diegetic/non-diegetic interplay. It was also important to me that we stray away from relying too much on canned, computer-generated imitations of instruments in the score. Whimsy can teeter on the edge of cheese if not done right, so I felt like a score primarily consisting of real instruments was essential to successfully maintaining that suspension of disbelief.
In working with both Arjun and Gabriel, I had two very clever minds who brought a ton of their own personality to the film. Which highlights another important lesson I learned – surround yourself with collaborators you respect and admire, invite them to play in your sandbox, so to speak, and then trust them to do their thing. This applies to any creative head on your team – from your actors to your sound designer. Often times they’ll surprise you with better ideas than you could have ever imagined, and that was definitely the case on Fortissimo.
Well said! What does a screenplay look like when there’s not much dialogue involved? Speaking of collaborators, how did your writers, Maxwell Nicoll and Matt Stephenson, break up the action lines to ensure the reader wasn’t overwhelmed by big blocks of text?
There’s definitely no avoiding the fact that you’re going to have a whole bunch of scene description and action lines in a script like ours. Here’s an example from the scene where we first meet our hero:
As you can see, Max and Matt did a great job of infusing it with language and pacing that made it fun to read, and very much informed the tone, style, and other creative choices we would make throughout the filmmaking process.
I’d love to hear about your experience navigating the writer/director relationship – what did that process look like?
For me, this was the first time I had ever collaborated with other writers. But I also had the mindset of wanting to put as much focus on the actual directing of the film as I could. I did try to write what turned out to be an incredibly different, horribly melodramatic version of the film, but the process of writing it just didn’t tickle me the way directing does. Fortunately I had friends who did feel that way about writing, so I enlisted their help.
What I brought to them was by no means a fully-formed concept – I just knew who my main character was, and how I wanted to tell the story. We talked a lot about different ways we could attack the story. While doing a film without dialogue definitely provided challenges, Max and Matt smartly devised the character of Blue – the girl with the magical ability to produce sound with her every touch. That was ultimately the key that unlocked how the story took shape.
Once you had your production draft finished and ready to go, what were your next steps? What had to happen in order to get you from locked script to Day One on set?
Pre-production is where much of the magic happens, so a lot transpired. First thing I did was build my core team – my producers Claire Brooks, Ryan Spears and Deanna Urciuoli – who really are the ones who made this film happen. We divided producing responsibilities into fundraising, logistics, and on-set help. There was a lot of crossover, but it helped to have defined roles.
From there, we created an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund, and partnered with an organization called Fractured Atlas to make any donation tax-deductible. We also set out to find our locations, and we held a casting call for the rest of the cast beyond Richmond, which included the girl character, Blue.
Meanwhile, I worked with my production designer and cinematographer to more concretely decide the look of the film, and went on location scouts with my core team to map out every shot I had planned for the film. I also shared this list with my Assistant Director, David Ketterer, who created a shooting schedule for the production.
There are so many moving pieces, which is why it’s essential you build and empower a great team around you. All told I think we had at least 50 – 60 people work on this film.
Wow! Your river location is great. I love how the relative emptiness communicates the mime’s fall from grace, and how the patterns and long lines around the location (1) echo the mime’s costume, and (2) if we’re really reading into things, suggest he’s imprisoned by his seeming irrelevance. Did you have to get a film permit to shoot here? What were you looking for when scouting for your exterior location?
This brings up another huge lesson I learned, and is something one of my directing professors Ron Daniels once said in class: “Four words to live by – prepare, prepare, prepare, improvise!” This is true for all facets of life, and even he was only referring to rehearsing with actors. But it also applies to this river location.
To answer your permit question, yes – we had to go through the city of New York to get a permit to shoot in a public park, which was a 3-week process. My director of photography, Mingjue Hu, and I spent a great deal of time on-location for this scene, mapping out how each shot would work in the context of that specific environment. We wanted it to feel urban but magical, full of depth, interesting angles, color, and people-watching, so that Richmond would seem even more isolated from his surroundings. We had a great plan and a permit for the exterior location. The trouble was, all of this was for our original exterior location – the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
About 48 hours before the first day of filming, we learned that a substantial Walk for Breast Cancer would be filtering into the Bethesda Fountain area on one of our shoot days. The permit office hadn’t warned us about this. So unless we wanted 10,000 people in pink hats in our scene, we’d have to change locations.
So the day before filming, our associate producer Robin D’Oench recommended we check out Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side – it’s where Spike Lee had filmed parts of 25th Hour. Ming and I went up there, and over the course of an hour, transposed months of shot planning into our new location. Meanwhile our producer Ryan had to make a case to the park department as to why they should issue us a new permit on such short notice.
In retrospect, it’s clear to me that this location was infinitely better for the film than Central Park would have been, even without the pink hats. But even this river location wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t been both prepared and open-minded to what the film gods were throwing me. I do believe everything that happens on a film set happens for a reason, even when things go wrong. You just have to maintain the bigger picture and work with the cards that you’re dealt, when push comes to shove.
I’m especially intrigued by your decision to cover the majority of the action in this exterior location in single shots. Rarely do we see the different parties – ie., the mime, the musicians, and the girl – connected to each other via Wide Shots or camera movements. What was your thinking, here?
This was partly by design, as I wanted to promote a sense of isolation for Richmond – this is Richmond’s world and the audience is living in it. But it was also partly out of our control, as actors’ schedules and weather cut down on the amount of time we had to shoot scenes. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted a few more shots linking various parties in certain scenes – but once again, especially at our budget level, those were the cards we were dealt.
The nightmarish dream sequence beginning at 04:42 really struck me: the production and costume design create a feeling of antiquity and decadence that’s amplified by the warbling music, belittling laughter, and trippy editing effects. How did you source such intricate props and costumes? Where did you shoot the scene? Was it storyboarded, did you discover your shot interactions during the edit, or was it a bit of both?
Yeah that was one of my favorite scenes to shoot – I saw it very clearly in my head, and I always love when I’m afforded the flexibility of abstract music video logic.
The props, costumes and make up – all the credit goes to our production designer Divya Gadangi, art director Deirdre Jernigan, costume designer Elexa Cangelosi, and make up artist Ana Perdita. I think since this scene was such a suspension of disbelief, our whole team could let their imaginations run wild have more fun with it.
The location itself was at this awesome bar in Williamsburg called Pete’s Candy Store. They have this quaint little train car theatre used for open mics and music performances usually – that’s where we shot it. We’d looked at a wide range of theatres, including some really, really ornate huge ones, but ultimately we decided that scaling down and building a sense of claustrophobia was better for the story (and the budget).
We did one pass at storyboards for the entire film, but I must admit that I didn’t invest too heavily in that part of the process. Going forward I plan to do a bit more storyboarding, but on Fortissimo I limited my shot list to very specifically-worded descriptions. I’m not a great drawer, but moreover, I could see it in my head, felt confident in my ability to articulate that, and I didn’t want to limit my collaborators’ imaginations.
As for shot interactions, it felt okay when edited together, but it was definitely missing something, just like in the opening scene. So when we found that archival footage, it allowed me to break up the action that was happening in the nightmare, thus not locking us into a concrete logic.
I’d love to hear more about how you approached Fortissimo as the director. Everything feels exaggerated; actions and expressions are big, almost theatrical. Why did you decide to treat the material in this way? How did you communicate your vision for this treatment to your team?
To me, it’s what the material asked for. Especially without dialogue, I felt that we needed to telegraph at times what characters were feeling and what was going on. At the same time, I’m a big fan of films that make you think and provide structured “vacuums” into which you as the audience can project your own interpretation. Fortissimo isn’t difficult to digest, but I did want it to ask audience members to engage, rather than be purely spoon-fed. It was all about striking a balance.
Of course, the guiding philosophies and sensibilities for this film weren’t developed in such specificity overnight. I had broader feelings about how we should tell this story when we started. But it was through discussing the material with my core creative team, and being asked lots of questions over time, that I came to better understand my own sense of the film. And it was because of that consistent dialogue with my team that the vision was organically disseminated. I may have had the final word on most creative decisions, but the film was very much a product of many peoples’ visions.
Speaking of camera movements, I’m a big fan of the tracking shot at 07:22. What gear did you use to accomplish this?
Thanks! That was shot using a steadicam.
What camera did you use on Fortissimo? What lighting equipment did you have on-hand at both your exterior and interior locations?
This dates the production a bit, but we shot on the RED MX camera, using, I believe, RED Pro Prime lenses. For movement, it varied between a tripod, steadicam, and Fischer Dolly, depending on the shot.
I can’t remember offhand all the different types of lights we used, but Ming (our DP) had a nice assortment. I vaguely remember him using heavily diffused kinos for the interior quite a bit. Outside, the sun was our main source of light, and we would strategically use bounce boards and flags to get the desired lighting.
The visual effects associated with the girl’s magical touch are subtle but effective. How did you bring them to life?
I was chatting with a production designer friend of mine about Fortissimo early in pre-production, and they told me to imagine the film as if it had no sound at all. How would we get everything across? I had also just seen Avatar and liked how the trees would emit this glowing ripple as Jake Sully and Neytiri’s feet touched them – a great example of synesthesia.
So I worked with a number of visual effects artists to figure out how to achieve that. Ultimately, the lead VFX artist, Brian Magarian, I think used a combination of After Effects and Nuke to pull it off, and had to do a fair amount of rotoscoping.
You directed Fortissimo several years ago. Is there anything you’d change if you could go back and make it again? If so, what, and why?
Honestly, probably not – but not because there aren’t things that I could have done better. I like to think of each film, music video or other project as a sort of time capsule for how I saw things and creatively problem-solved at the time. Much healthier to let those “mistakes” remain etched in stone, learn from them, and apply that experience to the next film.
If you don’t mind my asking, Noah, what was the film’s budget? How did you raise the money? As you know, financing is one of the biggest challenges facing we indie filmmakers, and we’re always eager to hear how people solve this piece of the puzzle!
I don’t think there’s one single way to raise money for a film, and it’s definitely something I’m still eager to learn more about myself. For Fortissimo, the initial budget was around $16,000, but we didn’t account for post-production or festival applications and transportation – those all ended up having to come out of my own pocket.
To raise that amount, we tried to create a vivid crowdfunding campaign that outlined our vision for the film, made an account on Indiegogo, and asked everyone we knew if they might be willing to donate.
Any words of wisdom for filmmakers looking to get their projects off the ground? What about for filmmakers who are turning their sights to the festival circuit?
This could be a whole interview unto itself, but I believe if you’re passionate enough to get your film made, you’ll get it made. That’s not meant to oversimplify how hard it is to make a movie – it can be grueling. But ultimately, especially if you’re just starting out, you need to be the driving force behind your film. As Mark Duplass once said, “the cavalry isn’t coming”. Every film starts somewhere, with one person. You’ve got to be the person who starts with a single snowflake and starts rolling it downhill. If you want it bad enough, you’ve got to be resourceful, patient and tenacious enough to make it happen.
But you can definitely do it if you want to! And above all, always remember that at the end of the day, you’re really just playing with toys in a sandbox. Don’t take the process or yourself too seriously, keep a sense of humor, and you’ll get it done.
Well said. Thanks for the encouragement – and for this inside look at making your film, Noah! We’re excited to see what you develop next.
For more from Noah, head on over to his website.
Michael Koehler, with
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