Unlike many filmmakers I’ve met, it’s pretty rare that I begin developing a film with a completed script in hand. Blame it on my visual arts orientation, but most of my stories start out in my mind as a series of illustrative images with very little dialogue. This is one of the reasons why I so enjoy animation, dance, and interpretive performance art. When done well, you can tell wonder filled, emotionally charged, hilarious, dramatic, and immensely compelling stories without uttering a single word.
In the case of BUTTERFLY, the story again began as a stream of emotionally charged visuals. But interestingly, those images very quickly became a three page poem (single spaced), centering around a man mired in darkness and dissonance, who finds himself drawn to fleeting examples of beauty, passion, and inspiration which give him focus and help to “keep him in the light.”
As I played out the BUTTERFLY concept, the central character became a photographer (named “Derek Torres”- a bit of a private joke), and I began translating the poetry into a surreal cinematic experience which could serve as an interpretation of the Photographer’s reality. In the BUTTERFLY world, the audience could hear Derek’s every emotion as spoken word, identify with his changing moods through the lighting design and camerawork, and see his visions of passion and inspiration embodied in the form of a living model/lover/muse who appears before him, dancing tantalizingly, and enticing him into action.
Now, for the record, while I have always had a fascination with dance, I have had no formal dance training, and working on BUTTERFLY opened a gateway to a whole new world for me. It turns out that Animation and Choreography, at least in the way use them, have a tremendous amount in common. Both practices are based around artfully constructed poses, elegant transitions, and the overarching direction of motion through time and space. The rub was that while I approached the piece with a good general sense of the movement, pacing and flow, I had no knowledge of the proper terminology needed to describe it. Due to this, much of my pre-production process for the film was spent taking the motion designs in my head, and working with an “interpreter” to help properly place them onto the human body. That process was exhausting, exhilarating, stressful, highly educational, and took a really long time… but made the development of the DANCER character one of the most rewarding parts of the entire production process.
Lucky for me my “Dance Interpreter” was the gifted, brilliant and very patient dancer Kirsty MacKellar, whom I had met while working on my EMMY nominated documentary “The Artsiders®.” Kirsty (bless her heart) was surprisingly open to my non-traditional, highly improvisational process from the very beginning, and worked with me for weeks as we crafted her performance in the film. Her movements were derived directly from the imagery of the poem, and her timings were driven by the cadence of my reads, but all of it was done as if a Frenchman and a Swede were trying to haggle over the price of a trinket in a bazaar in Egypt. Despite the translation difficulties, BUTTERFLY grew more defined after each rehearsal, the dances became more and more evocative and inspirational, and in the end, our system just plain worked. But even so, we soon hit a limit to how much more we could accomplish without bringing DEREK into the picture.
With DANCER, the role was very nebulous, much more about an emotional evocation and energy than a specific look. With DEREK, I had a LOT of specifics in mind. DEREK had to be tall and thin, stubbly, dark haired, brooding… And he had to be capable of performing with an Irish accent. This last bit was the result of a chance encounter with a group of European Soccer players, but the accent added an incredible level of richness and resonance to the BUTTERFLY prose, and I became obsessed with finding this ability in my actor. I was so attached to this detail, that I was close to performing the role myself if I couldn’t find an actor who could pull it off. Thank goodness that I finally met Christopher Prentice, an incredibly versatile and gifted Shakespearean actor, who after one read in a storefront Chinese restaurant, nailed every single detail I had hoped to incorporate into the character of DEREK.
The rest of the production process flew by fairly cleanly. There were LOTS of rehearsals, tons of camera pre-visualization, numerous lighting tests, constant blocking refinements, choreography adaptations, and costume selections… until both Derek and Dancer were performing at the top of their game, and I had an excellent feel for how I wanted to film the final piece. Once we hit that stage, I brought my camera, and every light kit, piece of audio gear, and grip apparatus I had at my disposal, and proceeded to try to film the whole damn thing by myself in our rehearsal space. In retrospect, this was essentially a last dress rehearsal, allowing me a final opportunity to test my camera work and lighting design against the action… but at the time, I was still pretending to myself that it was going to be THE final shoot. Needless to say, it wasn’t.
I sat with the footage from that original shoot for several weeks before finally committing to a “real” Final shoot. But soon enough, I had both Derek and Dancer performing within a proper set, lit by a dedicated lighting team, recorded and shot by a small but talented audio and camera crew using a gorgeous Varicam mounted on a massive dolly/jib combo. The “Real” Final film premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival, and went on to screen across the country throughout 2008 and 2009. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it now on Youtube via the link below… and feel free to add your vote to the Butterfly IMDB page HERE!