All this commotion and hubbub about Michael Hazanavicius‘ gorgeous, new silent film The Artist has got me reminiscing about my silent movie, War Story, which L.A Weekly declared, if I may mention, “triumphs on all fronts” (L.A. Weekly, Nov. 2001, review here). This is the film I was referring to in my post on Chaplin. When I was first inspired to make this movie, I’d been so taken by Chaplin’s work, felt such an immediate kinship, that I had to create something in homage, while making it my own with a modern twist.  The little tramp character, in my film one Metly Moorville, would be gay and fall for a soldier heading off to WWI, who would return the ardor, but whose identical twin brother would be a violent homophobe. Naturally, comedy-of-errors hijinks would ensue.

I found one of the most challenging parts of making War Story was creating the details of the silent, physical comedy. While many gags I lifted from a wide array of Chaplin’s work, most still had to be invented. So I workshopped with a group of actors some two years before the cameras rolled. (This is one of the most prepped films I’ve ever done. Camera tests, make-up tests, set-design tests, models, storyboards, etc, all were undertaken in the two years it took my amazing producer on it, Susan Stoebner, to miraculously raise our financing.)

Making Silent Music, Chaplin Style

Today’s shot is one of those gags that came out of that workshop. I think we probably spent an entire evening working on its choreography and timing, a full two years before it would be filmed. Like many of the shots in the film, it was designed, rehearsed and shot as if it were dance, with counted beats cuing various actions (well before Mike Petrone’s ingenious original score would be heard). While much of it was created in advance with a group of actors who wouldn’t even ultimately appear in the film (two years is a long time to hang around) there were nonetheless lots of final tweaks on set. By the way, the waiter, played by Damon Huss, was inspired by Albert Austin whom Damon had an uncanny resemblance to once made up.

The bit is followed by perhaps one of my favorite gags in the film, something I patently stole from Chaplin’s Idle Class, a short he did early in his career for the Mutual Company: Metly’s knocked down twice by the big brute Eric, played by the incomparable Abraham Benrubi, only to cut his loses and just volunteer the third knock down. (Benrubi, like Huss, was destined to play this role which was based on one of Chaplin’s stock players.) The great joy of making this film was the mixture of stealing Chaplin’s best bits and inventing my own, while hopefully saying something brand new in the process. I’m honored to say that in 2004 War Story was selected to be preserved in the film print archives of the New York Public Library.

After the clip below is a short behind-the-scenes featurette by my talented filmmaker friend, Nick Louvel, with additional camerawork by the equally talented filmmaker Mika Johnson. In it you can see, among many other things, the Mitchell Standard 35mm hand-cranked camera we used.

Here’s the sequence in which Metly and Eric vie for the open waiter position. The shot’s at :48.


Here is the behind-the-scenes, please forgive the 10 seconds of silent black that precede it: