Monday, January 17, 2011

Notes on The Death and Life of Saint Faustina

Note: I personally created this video.  It is mainly to be watched as its own piece.  The commentaries underneath are purely educational and informative.  I do not recommend reading them immediately following viewing, but rather enjoy the video as its own piece first.  I also recommend going into full screen mode.

My short film, The Death and Life of Saint Faustina, is a very personal piece for me.  I have a great love for this saint and she is the patron of my household (Christian fraternity).  The film took months to come together and eventually took a lot longer than I had expected.  The idea is a very dense religious film integrating a myriad of film techniques taken from a wide range of films to project the theological and mystical reality captured in Saint Faustina's diary.

The project began in December 2007.  I started a Facebook group to get my friends involved and to get people involved in the areas I could not do myself.  Things I needed included costumes, actors and someone to play the music.  Although a small number of people joined this group, I never used it to organize anything.

During the winter break from school, I decided to reread Saint Faustina's diary which I had read the summer before.  This time I took notes summarizing any paragraph that I found important so that I could check my notes and look for events that might be useful to make scenes out of.  I got through about half of the diary.  I had enough to put in my film and I made up three small parts on top of what I got from the diary.  I used the diary for most of the lines in the film because I am not much of a writer.  After this, I wrote the script using the Final Draft demo.  Being that the film is a silent movie, I decided to put all the lines in the script, but to underline the lines that would be titled.  All the lines that were not titled were improvisable so long as the gist and feeling were conveyed on the screen, it was good.

The next step was to pick out the music.  I wanted the sacred music for its beauty and suitability, but that is not an extensive knowledge area for me.  I web searched sacred music midis and found the website Traditional Catholic Hymns Midi Index which used to be all midis and have more hymns.  It not only had many sacred hymns, but it also had information on when they were used liturgically and it had their lyrics in English and Latin.  I used this to pick out different music for all my scenes that was more-so fitting to the scene for the content of its lyrics than its sound.  I knew that some viewers would get the references and it was worth it for them.

I then proceeded to storyboard the entire film except for the first scene.  I knew the first scene would be best done in the editing room when I had all the footage.  It would be impossible to map it out otherwise.  The other scenes were responsibly storyboarded.  The rest of the storyboarding was quite easy and gave me a general idea of what I wanted for every single shot.  I knew I could change the depths or angles slightly once I had the camera.

With the storyboard done, I was ready to start, but not really.  I wanted to shoot a number of cutaway shots for the first scene because I thought it would be the easiest part.  I was going to do this at Saint Peter's Church in downtown Steubenville because they have the traditional look I was going for and lots of religious imagery I could use in cutaways.  I called a number of times and they seemed to always be having a funeral when I might be able to go in.  I finally got the go-ahead, but my friend could only drop me off for an hour.  When I got there, the lights were off and all my shots were underexposed.  I turned up the exposure and got shots that were usable yet disappointing.  I couldn't stay as long as I would have liked.

On another day, I showed up during my friend's holy hour at the Portiuncula Chapel on Franciscan University of Steubenville's campus.  That is where I got my shots of the Eucharist.  I had to ask the chapel office for permission and they told me it was okay as long as I did not disturb the people at prayer.  I went in silently, got my shots and left.

I found my actress to star in the film and e-mailed her the script.  I was lucky to find someone so talented.

Months later, I bought a nun's outfit that she could wear in the film.  I searched all kinds of religious clothing stores only to find that everything was too expensive.  I went on to and found a very basic Sister Act-style nun's habit.  I was disappointed that it was not the same habit as Saint Faustina's order because I had put much attention to detail in other things, but it looked great so I had to accept that it was good enough.

After that, I finally shot all her indoor parts in one night.  We had to shoot in my attic against a non-descript blue wall with one light because I did not have any sets.  I only used one lamp that I took from my roommate's room.  It worked out surprisingly well and yielded the results I wanted.  Her acting performance was better than I would have asked for although she had trouble with the raisin bran and water that had been through the blender, which I used as fake vomit.  She made it work.  I shot all the scenes in the hospital room and all the confessional scene parts that involved her that night.

Over the course of the summer I had been working on the intertitles for my film.  Since I had just taken a publication design class at the beginning of the summer, I decided to use Photoshop for all my titles. Also, the editing facilities I had wanted to use were closed for the summer.  Making the titles was time-consuming, but very easy.  I went through every font because I wanted the fonts to convey the mood for each scene and line.  I also tested font sizes and had to turn some titles into two titles.

Over the summer, I had not found someone to play the main priest role in the film.  I decided I would do it myself in the Fall with someone else behind the camera for only these shots.  With my shooting style of all close-ups, I could get away with no costume for myself.  I wore a black button-down shirt.  I had my hair cut very short for the role and my friend did the shoot of me under my supervision.

The hardest part of working on a video project is the things where you rely on others.  I should have been more persistent in getting my friends to help me sooner and not putting things off.  Working with low budgets, little costuming and no real set is hard.  I was able to use a minimalist approach very well and turn it into a working style.

The idea of The Death and Life of Saint Faustina as a silent movie came to me for numerous reasons.  For starters, I knew it would be easier not to worry about sound in my project.  It also gave me an opportunity to showcase the beautiful sacred music.  I personally have an interest in sacred music.  I also knew that generations consider this beautiful and it is an important part of our culture.  I picked music that was above criticism so I'd at least know one part of my movie was right. In addition, silent movies have a certain surreal, otherworldly quality to them.  This is very suited to fantasy stories or transcendent religious stories.  Using realism would not properly convey the mystical element of Saint Faustina's life.  Also, her life was a reflection of interior and exterior silence.  Another reason I wanted to do it as a silent movies was because it was something completely different than what most people are used to seeing.  Many student films try to look like regular professional films you would see on Friday night at a multiplex.  They will always fall short in comparison.  My movie is a whole different category and most audiences will not have a reference point to criticize it from and therefore will not see it as inferior or lacking.  The last reason that I wanted to do it as a silent film is that I have seen many silent movies and I understand how the medium works.  I'm completely comfortable, if not more comfortable, with it, due to the ease of working without sound.  I intended to make this a silent movie as if the medium had never gone out of style.  It is neither blatant homage nor parody.  It is just another silent film.

The most prominent influence on my film was the 1928 French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer.  This was a helpful style to me because I had little in terms of sets.  The close-ups bring you very close to the characters on a personal level.  The Passion of Joan of Arc was meant to be more about characters than setting or time period as is my movie.  I also called on my actress to use images of suffering Joan in the film to be the inspiration for her performance.  Another technique taken from there was the use of multiple angles on characters in scenes.  If two people were talking, there would not just be shot- reverse shot, but there would be a new angle every time a character was cut back to.  It adds energy to the simplest scenes and makes them not boring.

Another influence on the work was the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and especially his two films October and Battleship Potemkin.  The idea of my film was to use four of the five types of montage as laid forth by Sergei Eisenstein.  The first was to use metric editing in the opening scene to highlight the beauty, rhythm and ceremoniousness of the final vows.  Rhythmic editing, which would include differing length of shots would be used everywhere else to contribute to the energy and reflect her stressed mental state.  I tried to make the shots surprising lengths without overdoing it.  Tonal montage is to be used in the opening scene with the cutting back and forth between Saint Faustina and the religious imagery of where she is.  It promotes the sense that she is walking a path of suffering and embracing the cross.

The first scene of the film is Saint Faustina's final vows.  The ceremony is in many ways treated like a funeral because it was a nun's death to the world.  The first scene uses intellectual montage to make a point of her taking up the Way of the Cross.  It also makes use of the music from a traditional funeral mass.  Being as I have minimal footage of her walking down the aisle, I decided to make the scene shorter than I might have done.  I would have liked to use more people for this scene, but it would have proved too hard.

The title immediately follows the intro.  The title of the film refers to her death to the world and her life as a nun as well as her actual physical death and eternal life.  It is also clever to make it the opposite of what people expect and it gets them to think about it.

The second scene is the first scene of her in the hospital bed.  The second scene originally had no music because it was short and a let-down from the first scene, but a later decided to add necessary music.  After the intro, the movie goes into chronological paths and goes back and forth between them. A deathbed scene is followed by a scene earlier in her life.  All deathbed scenes are sequential to each other and all scenes from earlier in her life are sequential to each other.  This gives an opportunity to show her suffering and power in death, but to cut it up so it doesn't get boring seeing her lying in a bed for an entire movie.  The second scene merely sets up the deathbed thread.  It establishes the use of close-ups and the high key lighting set-up that draws attention to the face.  It finally begins the motif of her looking at the Cross and her sufferings being united to it.

In scene two, she is outside praying a Divine Mercy Chaplet.  It may look like she is praying a rosary, but the musical cue would prove otherwise.  I shot this from multiple angles to emphasize the beauty and give it a poetic feel.  It is another way of taking something that is visually not much, but shooting it in a way that makes it so much more.  The outdoor part ends with a dissolve jump cut where she stays in the same place and finishes her prayers.  I took this technique from Francois Truffaut's film The 400 Blows.  She goes into the chapel which is actually the Portiuncula chapel on Franciscan University's campus.  The scene begins with a long take of the Eucharist and no music.  This gives the audience an opportunity to ponder the mystery of the Eucharist and step into the contemplative shoes of Saint Faustina.  On the one hand, it is truly a POV shot, but on the other hand, it is a very subjective experience and each audience member will have different thoughts than what the saint had or than what any member of the audience is having.  Once this shot ends, the hymn Ave Verum Corpus is played as music, thus drawing us back to the scene and out of our contemplation. This cuts to a shot of her in prayer looking towards the Eucharist.  Immediately after a shot of the Eucharist, we get a shot of Jesus in a vision speaking to her, thus making associations between Christ and the Eucharist through intellectual montage.  I decided to represent the Jesus visions through color titles featuring a picture of Divine Mercy Jesus.  The color provides a contrast to the black and white and the vision of Christ is too spectacular to capture literally on screen.  It would be corny if I tried.  So I captured something unimaginable in a simple and abstract way, admitting that it is uncapturable.  This is similar to the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life.  To shoot angels in heaven would have been too corny, but to shoot them as flashing stars is delightfully innocent and shows a certain reverence.  I first wanted the original Divine Mercy image for this because Saint Faustina herself called it a weak reflection, but it looked too ugly.  While she speaks to the Eucharist, I utilized shot-reverse shot, but each POV shot of the Eucharist gets closer, while each shot of her angles further away from a head on view of her face. This represents that she is getting closer to God and further from us, the Earthly audience.  In on of the shots of her, I double-exposed the visions over her face, thus giving us visual hints without saying everything.  In the final shots, tonal montage is used, utilizing the emotional meanings of the image of Christ and her at prayer and cutting between the two at an increasingly rapid pace to convey her full union with Christ.  It finally stops, ending the scene with a last, loving message from Jesus.

The movie then returns to her on her deathbed.  Two carousing slightly drunk men show up in the room with her.  The men go over to their beds and persistently talk while she is attempting to hold interior silence.  Saint Faustina, used to a world in constant view of the sacred, is offended by their non-stop trivial secular banter.  Many dissolves are used to show time elapsing in their talking.  The scene then cuts back and forth between heightened suffering and them carousing to show that she is a penitential offering for their ignorance to God.  It culminates in her vomiting and then settles when they ask to leave.  The entire scene is played with a light jazzy piece to reflect the attitude of the two men and their indifference to her.  This is meant to create shock, disgust and a deeper sympathy in the audience.

The confessional scene is perhaps the most important scene in the film.  The music for the scene is Attende Domine.  It begins by showing the outside of the confessional to establish setting.  It then goes to shot-reverse shot of the outside of the doors to represent them talking to each other, but due to the seal of the sacrament, we the audience, are not privy to it.  The scene then goes inside after she has received absolution. She speaks to Father Sopocko about how the devotion will initially fail and cause him suffering.  Her face is double-exposed with images that reflect this, including a burning Divine Mercy image.  She then expresses worry that she will not be able to spread the Divine Mercy message beyond the walls of her cloister.  In a few shots, she lays out the most important tenant of the Divine Mercy devotion, to trust in God's mercy.  She says it right into the camera for the first shot in the movie where she looks directly at the camera.  She is simultaneously talking to Father Sopocko within the world of the film and talking to the audience.  It is a case of the movie being self-reflective because it is through things such as this film that she will spread the message beyond the cloister and "speak" to the whole world.  It ends in a call for good priests, also pointed at the audience.

The final scene is her death scene.  The music for the scene is the communion hymn for a funeral mass, In Paradisum.  In her death, she feels the pains of the Cross in her body. Using intellectual montage, I cut back and forth between shots of her suffering and her hands and feet and the crucifix on the wall to show she is experiencing the pains of the Cross.  Finally, she falls dead. The last image of the film is a color picture of her. The color draws connections to her color visions of Christ earlier and the image is an Eastern Catholic style icon. Eastern Catholic religious art is more abstract because it is meant to reflect the person in their glory as opposed to Roman Catholic art which reflects the person as they lived on Earth.

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