Mistaken For Strangers, The Play

This short video that I directed has gone live today on Funny Or Die. This was my first collaboration with Matt Berninger, Tom Berninger, and Carin Besser. Phenomenally funny people. If you haven’t seen their documentary, Mistaken For Strangers, I highly … Continue reading

International Plan

_MG_0110Eric Ledgin and I wrote a pilot for IFC which we shot in Stockholm three months ago.  I’m definitely post euphoria, going through the comedown phase, back to reading science fiction books at the coffee shop, and beginning to await word on the series. The good news is that there are abs classes every single day at Equinox. So it’s not like I’m wasting time entirely.

I’ve long since accepted that any big project, especially if it goes really well, is followed by a long and excruciatingly mellow denouement. I don’t know if Eric is going through the same thing. Funny because I could ask him. We talk several times a day.

In May of 2011, around the time I was leaving Late Night, I was telling my friend Dan Pasternack about how fucked up my penis looked after spine surgery. Pasternak asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a sitcom based on my own life (there was more than just the penis story fyi). It was nothing I had the inclination or confidence to try until Eric and I started traveling together.

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There are several questions which remain about the white thing that Eric Ledgin appears to be wearing in this photo, none of which are answerable. Whose is it? How did it get on him? Is it a carpet? Where did it go after this photo was taken? Did it belong to this woman? Who is this woman? Does she have the white thing?

Ledgin was on the monologue staff at Late Night, and shared an office across the hall from me with 2 other mono writers Morgan Murphy and Justin Shanes. I used to hear them analyzing jokes together, and loved to hear the way they focused on language. Crafting a monologue joke has a weird, almost equation-like elegance. Writing a monologue joke is something that I never successfully did in my entire time at Late Night. My brain does not work that way. The monologue writers were writing about 60 jokes a day, and I was fascinated by their process, and the intellectual rigor that they applied to it. I was just beginning the divorce process and Eric was in a relationship which had some ups and downs, so we had a few “deep talks” at work then started hanging out outside of work. One night I was doing karaoke in Manhattan with Eric and his girlfriend (they’ve since split up and Eric is now married to someone else…more on that later…or not…I mean this isn’t Eric’s blog) when I realized that when I was in his presence I felt like a winner. Which is the best thing you can say about a friend. I told him that when I was in my 20’s someone once told me that all the girls in Stockholm were hot and that I was planning to go. I asked the two of them if they wanted to come to Sweden and be my wing couple. She couldn’t get the time off of work, but Eric and I were on hiatus at the same time from Late Night, so he took a risk and said yes.

On April 18th, 2011 we landed in Stockholm for our vacation, still very much getting to know each other as friends. It was those long, meandering conversations that Eric and I had which became the basis of our show, but finding the structure would come later. In the moment there was simply a “Let’s work together!” vibe. On the plane home we wrote down every detail of our trip, diary style, just so we wouldn’t forget. Eric was still at Late Night in NY and I was in LA, so over the next 9 months we took those memories and crafted them into a larger idea, which we pitched to Pasternack (who incidentally is VP of Development at IFC) and the rest of the IFC development team.

After getting the official script order, we sat down one summer day in 2012 at a restaurant in Los Feliz and starting actually writing the pilot. We had put a year of time and energy into developing the idea, but had never actually written anything scripted, per se. I called Eric that night after our first session and said “I love writing with you!!” He was like “I was just thinking about how well our first day went!” It was adorable you guys.

The pilot was finished in August and approved in November with a plan to shoot in Sweden in the Spring.

We finished filming on April 19th of 2013, 2 years and one day after we first landed in Sweden for our vacation.

Now at this point you are probably asking, “What lenses did you guys shoot with?” Okay, I’ll get to that. We shot on Kowa anamorphic lenses.

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Jonas Alarik, our DP, is a native Swede. He works mostly with the Alexa, and I have a bias for the Epic. He was open to both platforms so we decided to test both when I got to Stockholm. But as for lenses, I started floating the idea of shooting anamorphic to other people months earlier, and I got zero enthusiasm for the idea.  Finally one night, a few weeks ahead of the shoot, I had the temerity to broach the idea in an email with Jonas. Here is our exchange:

Michael Blieden  Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 11:38 AM
To: Jonas Alarik

Do you ever shoot anamorphic?  If so do you like it? I did it once and loved it. It’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a few months.

Jonas Alarik  Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:51 PM
To: Michael Blieden
I just did a feature film on Alexa with anamorphic lenses, and I love it too. I would thou say it´s not the fastest choice of equipment.. Don´t really know if it´s realistic with our budget and time limits.. But I like the idea!

27 mar 2013 kl. 19.38 skrev Michael Blieden:
[Quoted text hidden]
Michael Blieden  Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:57 PM
To: Jonas Alarik

What I like about it it’s the way it makes every frame special. And day exteriors would be so cool. I know it would be harder on us for night exteriors because anamorphics are slower right?  but we could shoot those regular 5k and crop them.

Theoretically I’m not opposed to having some limits in focal length. I think it forces you to be creative. But the budget problem is very real and I can’t argue that one.

[Quoted text hidden]
Jonas Alarik  Thu, Mar 28, 2013 at 3:37 AM
To: Michael Blieden
Yes, I like the idea. I think it helps a lot to create a more natural texture and look for the digital cameras. I’m an old school film guy and the modern digital cameras are a bit too clean and dead for my taste. One way to change that is anamorphic lenses, especially old anamorphic lenses. I also think that longer lenses often is preferable when you have a lack of resources. It helps you to select the pieces of the world, and gives your image the right feeling, plus keeps away whatever you don’t want people to see. I also could work with just a few lenses if necessary. I think that some rules, limits and radical choices before we shoot would help us to be creative and make a distinctive look for the show. To go anamorphic could be a step in that direction..?

27 mar 2013 kl. 20.57 skrev Michael Blieden:
[Quoted text hidden]

 

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We tested anamorphics and spherical lenses on Red and Alexa and it’s funny what happens to two camera geeks in a rental house. We both walked over the cameras we preferred and started playing with them. Me to my Red and Jonas to his Alexa. Occasionally we’d wander over to the other person’s station, but basically we were both absorbed in our own exploration for the better part of an hour.  Then I had to come to terms with the fact that I was acting, directing, and with Ledgin, still writing.  In a production as fast paced and small as ours, I wanted Jonas to work with the tool he naturally gravitates to. His brilliant work with the Alexa speaks for itself. I needed to let go of the camera, literally. So we chose Alexa and it worked out amazingly well. Jonas did exquisite work on this shoot. I will risk saying that even though it’s vaguely self-congratulatory but I cannot help but fawn over this man’s work. He pulled images that were straight out of my dreams. And for the record, the anamorphics we used are as fast, or close to as fast as any other lenses we could have used, from an aperture standpoint. Given the amount of low light shooting we had to do, this made it possible.

Also, at this point I have to give a very special thanks to @Radical.media who produced this pilot. They rep me for commercials so I knew that they had expertise shooting all over the world. Frank Sherma and Donna Portaro went way out of their way, for months and months, to bring all the pieces together for this shoot. They showed extreme care for the material. They are our partners and guides, and when it came to making decisions, whether it was lenses, wardrobe, locations, or 2 million other things you encounter shooting overseas, they were always helped us find the best creative choice, and made sure it was doable.
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The screen grab below will illustrate the aspect ratio difference between Anamorphic 2.35 and 16×9. The frame on the left is how we shot it, and the frame on the right is what airs on every cable channel. Shooting anamorphic but planning for the 16×9 crop is an accepted practice, so we took that into account when shooting.

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Anyone who’s kept up with me is not surprised that I’m spending this much time on cameras, lenses and the Red vs. Alexa debate.  For the record, I still love my Epic, Alex Hanawalt and I are going ahead with the Dragon sensor upgrade, and my penis did completely recover from surgery.

I’ll have much more to say about this project as time goes on.