Let's be honest here many of the 'behind the scenes' documentaries made for films these days are intended to add 'body' to many a soul-less and noisy blockbuster and earn more for the studios in the way of DVD sales. So, what a surprise to discover this gem.
Mark Letchumanan's 30-minute 'A Series of Small Things: A Behind the Camera Look' is just that an astute, funny and sometimes edgy look at the difficulties and joys of independent film-making. The subject of Letchumanan's hand-held camera is the making of Phil Donlon's short film 'A Series of Small Things,' shot in Chicago and starring Donlon and Doug Jones, who recently starred alongside Ron Perlman in 'Hellboy', the surprise big screen hit of 2004.
In its four 'chapters' you won't find much information on what lens to use in a wide shot, but you will get a real insight into what drives people to make films. James Butler's inspired editing skilfully shows us just how tough it is to bring a film into being on a tight budget, driven only by the determination, talent and sheer bloody-mindedness of the film-makers.
Letchumanan spends his time following the crew and actors through their day, catching small, intimate glimpses on set and at producer Steve Ordower's house where the day's work is discussed in often candid detail. One moment you're watching filming on a pier by Lake Michigan where the high wind is endangering not only the schedule but also the cast and crew the next moment you're watching Doug Jones' impromptu make-up master class reflected in a mirror in Ordower's bathroom. The darkly intense Donlon sparks with energy through the whole film, fretting about tight schedules and having enough food laid on for the extras in a restaurant scene, and then heading off in front of the camera to work with the beautiful Jenn Pae. Things go right and a huge Donlon grin lights up the screen.
Lighter moments, including Donlon's much-discussed fascination with Sophia Coppola's shirtsleeves, mingle with the harder side of film-making with images such as producer/editor Steve Ordower's exhausted features as they try to make it through another long and fraught day. Sometimes documentary editor James Butler just leaves the viewer something to think about as the camera lingers on a telling dialogue from the owner of a funeral home.
In a short 30 minutes we get to know the people involved with all the foibles and character differences that entails and it also shows how much the making of the film means to them. Don't get me wrong, there's none of that pie-in-the-sky Mickey Rooney 'Let's put on a show!' thing this is serious stuff done by seasoned professionals such as cinematographer Jim Andre and production designer Wes Tabayoyong. Yet it is done with such determination and faith that one cannot help but be impressed by the fact that the film was made on the proverbial shoestring. Now I'm going to employ that over-used word 'dedication' - but here it means something. These film-makers are professional to the bone; they eat, live and breathe their craft, which is why young film-makers should see this documentary if for no other reason than to watch how it SHOULD be done with care, skill, attention to detail and a generous dollop of guts and tenacity tempered by healthy doses of humour.
One whole chapter is an homage to the tall, lean Doug Jones, an actor normally slathered underneath latex in such films as 'Hellboy' and 'The Time Machine.' Bring him out from under the rubber and we finally see a truly talented performer of remarkable skill and presence. He may be more used to luxury treatment by big studios, but here on a chilly, windswept location in Chicago, Illinois, his star really shines he is a superb actor, and it shows.
In fact it is his voice, rife with humour, that introduces the documentary his angelic 'Homeless Man' explains to Donlon's haunted artist 'Adam' that 'Great things aren't done by impulse - but by a series of small things brought together,' a quote by Van Gogh. And that is exactly what this little jewel of a documentary is a series of small, wonderful things brought together and molded into something very special. All of the wry humour, wit, weariness and tenacity that goes hand in hand with the skill of making a film of the caliber of 'A Series of Small Things' is showcased here in vivid intimacy. A real joy to watch.
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