First class 'Flight' at Tribeca

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First-class "Flight:" There are many types of first-time directors, but they generally start out today by working in commercials or music videos before making their first feature.

In the case of Tracey Hecht, whose first-class romantic drama "Life in Flight" has its world premiere April 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival, there's no background involving shorter films of any kind. For the past 12 years Hecht's been working in design and writing stories, but that's all somehow managed to translate beautifully to her new career in filmmaking.

Written and directed by Hecht, "Flight" is a Plum Pictures production produced by Galt Niederhoffer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Celine Rattray and Pamela Hirsch. Starring are Patrick Wilson ("Little Children"), Amy Smart ("Just Friends") and Lynn Collins ("Fifty First Dates"). Besides its premiere, "Flight" will have press and industry screenings at Tribeca April 29 & 30 and public screenings April 28 and May 2 & 3.

The New York set film's story revolves around Will (Wilson), an architect who's about to achieve the success he's been working towards for years, but for whom success and happiness aren't the same thing they are for Catherine, his overachieving yuppie wife (Smart). Interesting complications arise when Kate, an attractive aspiring young designer, unexpectedly enters Will's life.

Having greatly enjoyed an early look at "Flight," I was pleased to be able to focus recently with Hecht on the making of the film. "It's a story I wrote
because I was just sort of moved and provoked by everything that was going on around me in my peer group and even more broadly," she told me. "I just started to write the story. I actually didn't even write it as a script. It was written just as a narrative and I gave it to a friend who happened to be in the film business and he said, 'You should really turn this into a script.'

"So I bought Final Draft (and it) was no small task translating the story to script form. It's a totally different discipline and in some ways was sort of torturous. I'm a creative writing English major by background so watching all the language that you work so hard to create just hit the floor (as you) make it script format wasn't easy. Now I have a lot of respect for it and find that it's something that I am learning. But I did love writing it. I didn't know much about film or filmmaking. I sent the script around to four or five producers in L.A. and four or five producers in New York and met with most of them and just really liked Plum. They were really insistent that I direct it. To be totally honest, I'm not sure it's because this script has shortcomings and I made up for them in terms of my vision when I talked about it or because they felt that I have the best vision of it. I've never really asked them, but it's one or the other."

Whatever the reason, the result is an impressive maiden film: "It was the first thing of it's kind that I've done, and I would say that any time you make a film it is a really collaborative effort and I feel really strongly that everyone I worked with was really talented. I actually loved that process. But, you know, I think I would admit myself the directing part of it came really naturally to me. I really loved taking the storyline that I had written and communicating it in a much more broad and visceral way in terms of all the language you use in terms of a film. I loved working with actors. I loved working with all the different departments on a film in terms of bringing to life the vision you have. You know, it's funny, that part felt really natural to me. I'm not sure if that's just because I have an innate aesthetic bent that my husband says I'm cursed by. When you write something and you have the story in your head while you're writing it you're seeing it, too. So it was a really natural process for me to translate that onto film and I loved it. I had a really really great time."

Hecht put together a terrific experienced filmmaking team to work with her on "Flight," which is something that poses challenges for even seasoned filmmakers. "You just kind of find yourself waist up in water and you're like, 'All right then.' If you let yourself get a strong sense of what's around you you find your way quite easily. You know, the producers, Plum Pictures, I met pretty early on. They're just a smart group of women who felt as creatively motivated as they did financially and business-wise and they were a great partner for me all along. I think the same could be said for the rest of the cast and crew. It takes all the stars aligning in the universe to get all your actors and all the right people involved in a project at the right time.

"I think it's one of Patrick's best works. He gives just a really strong nuanced performance. I was both really lucky to find him to do this and I also think this role is really well suited to him. As for all the millions of people who go into making the film, you meet people and you have sort of that immediate shared vision (when) you realize that your language is going to be really easy in terms of communicating what it is you're trying to say. And there are some people you meet with and it's like in the first three minutes you think, 'Wow. Like we won't be able to figure out how to turn that room into the right look if we spend two days.'"

Clearly, much of directing has to do with picking the right people: "Ultimately, the best part about making a film -- at least, it was one of my favorite parts -- is that you have this really private experience where you sort of lock yourself away and you write -- and I loved that part -- but then you sort of give it to other people and you ask them to layer on their impressions and their visions and their interpretations. I think that's a really wonderful dynamic experience to share with other people. I loved that part."

Needless to say, it makes great sense to pair up a first-time director with an experienced cinematographer, which was certainly the case with "Flight." Hecht's DP, Harlan Bosmajian, whose long list of credits includes Andrew Wagner's powerful 2007 New York set drama "Starting Out in the Evening" for which Frank Langella should have received a best actor Oscar nomination. "He has a really nice eye," she said, "and one of the things that was really important to me was the way New York was communicated through the film. The way the plot works is that there's this protagonist, Will, and he's sort of bogged down under all of these layers of his life that he's chosen and made. I wanted New York to feel a little bit like a bully because the thing about New York is that it has a very sort of linear and strict definition of what success is. When you try to expand that definition it's not always easy.

"It was really important to me that the cinematographer understood that balance between New York being a really ominous and looming place and a really beautiful place, too, because it is a place where you can really be whatever you want to be and there's so much room in terms of self definition. Harlan really felt and understood the story on a personal level. I think we connected about how we wanted New York to come across as both a really beautiful special place and also a really looming (place that's) almost like a bully. I think he did a really great job with that."

Asked how she worked with her actors, Hecht told me, "I think I would have loved to be a rehearser in the sense that I would have loved some time before shooting started to spend with the actors, but this was an independent film. We spent $2 million and we shot it on the 20 shortest days of the year. We shot it literally (over) the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2006 so it was like four o'clock and the sun was down so our day was over. It was a really tight shoot.

"As it turns out, I can see from my experience anyway that having a balance between the two would be most desirable, but not at the expense of the spontaneity of the moment. I think especially when you're shooting a character drama like 'Life in Flight' where the narrative is so much about the evolution of each of the individuals, that's something that even with really skilled and classically trained actors there's something really important about not treading in that water too much. We did a lot of discussion on set. I think I was really blessed with the actors I worked with. They're really talented and committed and they really personalized and internalized their characters in a way that I was really excited by. We did a lot of talking without a lot of specific rehearsing and I think that helped provoke really nice performances."

In terms of preparing, herself, for shooting, Hecht explained, "We did shot listing, mostly because we were on such a tight schedule. So we had a good sense when we went into locations about what our coverage was going to be and how we wanted to get the scene in the time we had. I talked a little bit about storyboarding, but for me (filmmaking is) such a dynamic process that I can see a certain kind of film benefiting from storyboarding, but for this one it was much more fluid and worked much better for me to just sort of let the day of the shoot and where the light was and what the location was looking like and the way the actors were feeling just sort of let them respond to that specific environment rather than try to create one that I had thought of a couple weeks before. I did a little storyboarding and ended up not using it at all."

Editing was a key process and one that Hecht acknowledged, "I'm terrible at it. It's as important to know in life what you're not good at as what you are good at and it was pretty clear to me that editing was a skill that, hopefully, one day I will improve at, but it was not natural for me. I don't know why. If I knew why maybe I'd actually be able to improve on it. And it's not that I don't have a really clear sense of what I want out of the moment or the process of the editing, but it is a really specific skill and I will tell you that the way I did it best and the way that I think worked really well and I was really happy with is I ended up recutting the film toward the end of my editing process with a very well-known editor named Craig McKay (an Oscar nominee for editing 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Reds').

"He's just fantastic. I had that very shared vision with Craig right away because I had this almost final cut of the film and there was something about it that lacked that grain within you where you watch a film and you sort of see past all of its flaws and through all of its fanciness and you really just feel the message. There was something just shy of that in my what I would call final cut. When I met with Craig we had a really great understanding of what it was that it was missing and the process that we went through was that he would spend a couple days putting a few minutes together and then I would go in and spend a day and tweak and work and tweak and work. And then he would spend a few days -- rather than me sitting side by side with him every day. That ended up being, I would say, one of the best experiences on the film both because I think in the end it was really successful and because it really transformed the spirit of the film."

For the editing process to have gone so well, Hecht had to have done a fine job shooting to get all the coverage she needed to work with McKay. "When you're shooting for (only) 20 days you always have that issue of time and coverage," she pointed out. "It's just the natural constraint of how much room do you have to get what you need? I think we did a really good job with what we had. When I watch it there's always the places where you think, 'Oh if I just had a half-hour more I just wanted that one more angle.'"

Asked about the worst challenges during production that kept her on her toes, Hecht told me, "Fortunately, my actors and my crew did not because they were all really strong professionals. Ironically, New York and the elements went along with the schedule quite well. We got lucky there. I would say that we had a really good systematic shoot in that there weren't a lot of huge snafus. I think it's always hard just in terms of managing. I have a family and I tend to not be the best wife-mother-sister-friend during those four weeks of principal photography just because your days are so long that you really can't be all those other things.

"But in terms of the actual on set dynamic, for the only time in my life I had an insight into maybe how a doctor is in that the moment I would show up at set I was very present and I was very clear about what we needed to do that day and very clear during shooting whether we were getting it or not and whether we should be taking a different approach. I think those 20 days of principal photography went really smoothly and felt really good."

When I pressed her again for any good weather stories, Hecht recalled, "I kind of like some of that stuff. One morning it was pouring rain and it was supposed to be a non-rainy scene. I actually got off on the subway stop too early to get to set and had to walk the last subway stop and showed up on set at like 5 a.m. I was dripping wet like I got dunked in a bucket of water. I just sat down and rewrote a part of the scene so that it would make sense. It was sort of a sad and melancholy scene to begin with and so (having rain) was like a happy accident.

"Sometimes, I think, you've just kind of got to go with it and hopefully make the most of what you have because that's just part of the live dynamic of shooting a film. I actually like that. Even the stuff that was hell -- and there's plenty of it -- just sort of incorporates in a way where (it all works out). There were times when we had camera trouble and there are a couple shots I really wish we hadn't had to use because it was so cold that the Steadicam froze up for hours on end. That just sort of happens, but isn't that just part of it?"

"Flight" is definitely one of the films that distribution executives looking to acquire product at Tribeca should make a point of seeing. "We're looking for a distributor," Hecht said. "I've screened this film in a bunch of places and one of the things that's interesting is how well this film has done outside of the major urban markets. We have screened it in L.A. and New York and we've screened it in two locations in the Midwest, one in the Pacific Northwest and one in the mid-Atlantic region -- some recruited (audiences) and some friends and family. New Yorkers and people in L.A. are so sophisticated and are used to such a sophisticated film body of work in particular in the independent film community. My film's a little strange in that it's really much more a mainstream theme and in some ways I would say is less groundbreaking and less avant-garde than a lot of independent films you see.

"When you show it to markets outside New York it's really interesting how strongly it resonates. So in talking to distributors one of the things we're most interested in is finding a partner who's interested in looking into markets that are outside of what I would say are the traditional platforming markets for an independent film."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Jan. 24, 1991's column: "Despite fears that it would, boxoffice business didn't plunge last weekend in the face of war in the Persian Gulf.

"In fact, business by key films was over one-third higher than it was last year ... What accounts for the war's failure to cut into boxoffice business as others were anticipating? Two factors deserve consideration beyond the obvious need people have for escapist entertainment during a prolonged period of crisis.

"To begin with, this is the first time America has fought a war with real-time coverage on CNN. During the Vietnam War there was no CNN. In the early Vietnam years, battlefield reports were shot on film and then flown to far-off network bureaus in Hong Kong or Hawaii. Later, technology improved. Tape replaced film and satellites enabled reports to be beamed instantly to network news centers in America. These stories usually surfaced on the air as bulletins or as reports on the networks' nightly newscasts. Local TV wasn't originating its own coverage from the front as it now can. People didn't have VCRs for time shift viewing. If you wanted to see that day's war coverage -- and many people just wanted to forget about it -- you had to be there to catch the network news.

"Today, thanks to CNN, war news from the Persian Gulf is available around the clock ... As a result, people can go out to see a movie without worrying about missing any important news. No matter what time you come home, you can catch up on developments in the Gulf just by turning on CNN..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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