Anna Wexler has been a Filmmaker in Resi …

August 29, 2008

Unorthodox Screening This Tuesday

Anna Wexler has been a Filmmaker in Residence here at the WGBH Lab for the past 9 months, working on her film Unorthodox: a film that follows 3 Orthodox Jewish subjects as they experience a unique phenomenon within the modern Orthodox community — the year in Israel — and watches as they come to terms with their beliefs and themselves.

This Tuesday, Anna will debut a 20-minute Work-In-Progress cut of Unorthodox that offers an idea of the progress she has made and where the film is headed. The screening will be free and start at 6 PM in the Joan Jonas Performance Hall. Support independent film and stop by to see how the film is turning out!

For more information, visit the all-new Unorthodox website:


Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind

June 19, 2008

Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind

More Unorthodox blog updates coming soon, but briefly:

I just found out about a cool new journal called Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. From the description:

“Projections is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal that explores the ways in which recent advancements in fields such as cognitive psychology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, genetics, and evolution help to increase our understanding of film, and how film itself facilitates investigations into the nature and function of the mind. The journal also incorporates articles on the visual arts and new technologies related to film. The aims of the journal are to explore these subjects, facilitate a dialogue between people in the sciences and the humanities, and bring thestudy of film to the forefront of contemporary intellectual debate.”

How cool is that?!

Given that two of my biggest passions are neuroscience and film, I think that this journal is one of the more fascinating intellectual ventures I’ve come across. Last year I worked on (as yet unpublished) neuroimaging studies of the cognitive process behind certain editing processes. I think it’s wonderful that there is a whole journal devoted to the intersection of neuroscience and film!

Please do check it out and pass the word along.

Lesson #5: Making a movie is like having a baby.

May 17, 2008

Lesson #5: Making a movie is like having a baby.

I’m 23, and I don’t plan on having kids anytime soon. But, in some sense, Nadja and I both are parents. Sure, it’s a little weird having a metaphorical child with someone you’re not dating… but, hey, it’s the film industry. Anything goes, right?

I’m attached to Unorthodox like a parent to a newborn. When it needs something, I’m there – at all hours of the night. I can’t close my close eyes for a second without worrying. I’ve delayed major trips (that climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, that skiing expedition across Greenland) so that I can devote my time and resources to its care. And the idea of letting someone else baby-sit for a while? Unthinkable.

Even worse, Nadja and I send joint emails announcing the film’s milestones. (No picture attachments, though – see Lesson #3). We throw small parties on behalf of these milestones. We sign so many emails together that we even considered a joint email account. (Don’t worry, we didn’t go that far.) We both use the pronoun “we” when talking about the film — to the great confusion of the uninformed public. We cancel work to have meetings (with producers, composers, creative advisors, editors) about the welfare of our child. We trade shifts. We put our life on hold.

Like a newbie parent, I often can’t talk about anything except the child. How he’s doing. What he’s wearing. What he looks likes these days. I fret obsessively over any sign that my child may have deviated from the normal developmental trajectory.

And you know those parents who delve into excruciating detail about their child’s physical issues – “Johnny only wet the bed once last night” – forcing their friends to feign interest in things like the latest potty-training technology? That’s me. I provide my friends with a constant running update of Unorthodox. In fact, they’re used to it now. These days, when they greet me, they don’t pause for a breath before inquiring about the film: “Hi Anna, how’s the movie coming along?”

Sure, all of this is mildly disturbing, and I still think that I’m too young to be a mother. But at least I can be thankful for one thing: I didn’t have twins.

Lesson # 4: Multiply all movie-related numerical estimates by six.

May 16, 2008

Lesson # 4: Multiply all movie-related numerical estimates by six.

So you think you’ve written a foolproof budget? You’ve counted out how many hours you’ll need for your editor – and you’ve even been liberal and thrown in an extra four weeks. Just in case. And, on top of all that, you’ve added 10% of your budget to your total for “contingency costs” – you know, for all those expenses you can’t foresee.

Now, take your total figure, multiply it by six, and you’ll get what your movie will actually cost.

And time?

1 (year) X 6 = six years

Arithmetic for documentary filmmakers is really that simple.

Lesson #3: Don’t leave your digital camera — you know, the one that takes stills — at home.

May 6, 2008

Lesson # 3: Don’t leave your digital camera — you know, the one that takes stills — at home.

We’re on lesson #3 now, and if I had to put my money on it, I’d bet that you’re wondering, at this very second, why I haven’t posted any production stills of Unorthodox. That’s exactly what you were thinking, wasn’t it? In fact, I’ll bet that this lack of photographs has been bothering you non-stop for the last week, making it hard to focus on your work, because all you can think is: why won’t Wexler just spice up this blog already?

So, let me take this opportunity to relieve you from your mental torture, and reveal an embarrassing little secret: we don’t have any production stills.

There. I said it.

Do you feel better now?

I do.

Let me qualify the above statement: we have a few production stills, but they’re from the few days that Nadja and I took off between production. Here’s a photo of Nadja in Haifa.

Nadja in Haifa

This is my production still.

With all the craziness of making sure a single shoot runs smoothly — or as close as possible to “smoothly” – – the “Get Production Skills” thought doesn’t come close to entering conscious awareness.

There isn’t much else to elaborate on: make sure to take stills or you’ll end up like me, posting an unrelated photograph and trying to justify it in a blog post.

Lesson # 2: When people ask to see your rough cut, do not show them a cut that is rough.

May 1, 2008

Lesson # 2: When people ask to see your rough cut, do not show them a cut that is rough

In real (non-filmmaking) life, the word “rough” – as in “rough draft” – carries with it a certain connotation: imperfection, a sketch, a loose outline, something unpolished.

Right. Now: throw out any notion of the meaning “rough” in the phrase “rough cut.” If it helps, you can think of it as a different word – Ruffkut? Ruphkut? – in an entirely foreign language. You do not understand this foreign language. You never will.

And, for God’s sake, NEVER show anyone an unpolished rough cut. (Unless you’re trying to commit film-suicide.)

Think about it: squeaky audio, a dark picture, an ugly shot – that sorta thing just doesn’t fly. What do you think those producers, funders, and directors will remember? The dazzling breadth of your story, your innovative idea, your beautifully written proposal?

Nope. They’re going to remember reaching for the volume knob. Or grabbing for that remote.

So, dear friends, you need to show the higher-ups a Ruffkut. A Ruffkut is the opposite of a rough cut. A Ruffkut is the most polished cut you can put together given your time and your budget.

Just for kicks, add in a little text screen in the beginning, acknowledging that titles, audio, narration, color (and anything else you can think of) are in rough form.

What you mean, of course, is that maybe the serifs in your font will be slightly more pronounced in the final version.

Lesson # 1: If it can go wrong, it will!

April 27, 2008

Lesson # 1: If it can go wrong, it will!

Nowhere does Murphy’s Law apply more aptly than in film.

I mean, I’ve had my fair share of Murphy’s Law situations – like having a porter run off with our bags during a trek in the Himalayas, finding out that my ATM and credit cards don’t work in Cambodia, hitchhiking out of the Sahara because a tour guide went psychotic – but really, that’s all a breeze compared to filmmaking.

All you filmmakers, I’m sure, are nodding vigorously and thinking about the time when your camera inexplicably stopped working before that dramatic scene. Or the time you actually recorded that dramatic scene, but later realized that the microphone had been off.

And, for all you non-filmmakers: do you have any idea how many objects can malfunction, even in the simplest camera-audio setup? Off the top of my head: camera, tapes, wires, cables, audio monitors, video monitors, batteries, boom poles, wireless mics, shotgun mics, wireless receivers, pre-amps, lighting kits, tripod, shoulder mount, battery chargers… the list goes on. And those are the ones that are easy to remember.

Then there are the small, annoying pieces that will knock your setup to the ground if you forget them: like the tripod head or the dime-sized windscreen for the lavalier microphone. These annoying little things will screw you: they’re outrageously expensive, easy to lose, and cannot be found at your local Radio Shack.

And the technical issues only scratch the surface of Murphy’s Law: things start to go wrong in pre-production (your oh-so-fragile hard drive crashes just as you’re burning a DVD for a grant that must be postmarked in an hour, the printer’s out of ink, you’ve used your last envelope, the car’s out of gas, no time to fill up, you run like hell halfway across town through a snowstorm to get to the only post office that doesn’t close at five), continue through production (try getting through Israeli airport security with black suitcases full of suspicious-looking wires and electronics), and just when you think it’s all over – you’ve shot the movie, what else could go wrong? – you find yourself negotiating the confusing world of post-production, which, as far as I can tell, is an unmarked minefield: one wrong step, and your film’s kaput.

Making a movie takes the collective effort of at least a hundred people: which is why, on a major motion pictures, the credits roll and roll and roll… but on low-budget small-crew independent films like Unorthodox, each person takes on the equivalent of fifty jobs. It’s enough to drive anyone insane.

So, all you aspiring independent filmmakers out there: be prepared to fight Murphy’s Law. Sure, it’s a hefty price to pay: but no one ever said creative control came cheap.

Announcing: Lessons I’ve Learned (from the mistakes that I’ve made) in Documentary Filmmaking

April 18, 2008

Announcing: Lessons I’ve Learned (from the mistakes that I’ve made) in Documentary Filmmaking

Aside from an Intro Video class, taught by the wonderful Joe Gibbons at MIT, neither Nadja nor myself has a background in film. We both studied neuroscience.

So how did we end up making a documentary film?

Unorthodox was a story that I wanted to tell — originally, it was going to be my writing thesis — but I ended up meeting a producer who encouraged me to tell the story through the medium of film.

I learned about documentary filmmaking from books, mentors, and most importantly, from doing it wrong. Mistakes are (somewhat unfortunately) the best way to learn.

I’m going to blog about the lessons that I’ve learned along the journey to bring Unorthodox to life. For all I know, these things are taught on the first day of Film 101. In fact, I hope they are, or all you film students should request tuition refunds.

I’ll be posting a new lesson every few days, so check back!

Grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT!

March 26, 2008

Grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT!

I know what you’re thinking: MIT? Arts? But MIT only does math and engineering…

Well, think again.

We’ve just received word of a grant from MIT’s Council for the Arts! Without their assistance over the years, there is absolutely no way this film would have been possible. They provided us with crucial initial funding and have continued to be incredibly supportive.

Thanks again to the Council for the Arts!

MIT Council for the Arts logo

Unorthodox (working title: Awaken) – an Introduction

March 25, 2008

Unorthodox (working title: Awaken) – an Introduction

Seeing as this is my very first post about Unorthodox (the film formerly known as Awaken) I figured I’d write an intro. Then I’ll move on to sharing my own journey through the world of documentary filmmaking.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

Unorthodox is framed by own story: as a teenager, I left the modern Orthodox Jewish community in which I was raised. After I graduated from high school, I watched as my friends — who, like me, were rebellious — spent a year studying in Israel. When they returned to America one year later, almost all of them had become religiously observant. This year in Israel is a rite of passage for most teenagers brought up in the American Orthodox Jewish community: nearly all high school graduates, both religious and non-religious, embark on this journey of spiritual renewal.

Intent on understanding why my friends had undergone this dramatic religious transformation, I set out, along with fellow filmmaker Nadja Oertelt, to follow a new generation of young Jews as they spent their post-high school year in Israel. Unorthodox follows three teenagers from the New York/New Jersey area as they spend the 2005-2006 year in Israel. In addition, Jake, Chaim and Tzipi document themselves with video diaries, offering an incredibly personal glimpse into their lives.

Through the documentation of this phenomenon, I was forced to confront my own painful decisions and the impact my departure. Unorthodox integrates the subjects’ video diaries, professional documentary footage, and my narration to tell the story of personal change as three young individuals attempt to confront difficult religious and emotional questions. Through several richly layered narratives, the film explores the role of society, family and nations in influencing beliefs, the nature of religious metamorphoses, and the border dividing Orthodoxy and mainstream society. Unorthodox is a film that represents a more universal narrative—the story of anyone who has ever truly confronted her most deeply rooted beliefs.