The Sonnet Project, produced by the Shakespeare Exchange in New York, is a project that requires filmmakers to contribute pro-bono work on a relatively large scale. It has been attracting many filmmakers, including me, and has been underway for a few months now. The project works like this: a filmmaker selects one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and creates an experimental short film out of that sonnet. The film is shot in a specific NYC location, chosen by the Shakespeare Exchange and features an actor approved by the Shakespeare Exchange, more specifically by the project’s producer, Ross Williams. Why would a filmmaker participate in this program? Let’s just say, for the sake of art and the chance to network with people in the theater community. At least, that’s why I chose to take on this project. I created a short film for Sonnet 21.
So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
The sonnet was recited by a Shakespearian trained actor (named redacted), who I had two previous collaborations with: Lipstick Lies, my short film that dealt lightly with a shift in parallel dimensions and my upcoming feature The Spaceship which deals with… well, you know, spaceships and New York real estate. We were required by the Shakespeare Exchange to film the experimental short at a specific NYC Location: Gracie Mansion. A date was set this past spring for the shoot and the actor and I ventured uptown to Gracie Mansion where we started to set up for the shoot. Keep in mind that in New York, video and filming doesn’t require a permit as long as you don’t assert control over a public area. It is also not illegal to film anything in New York (building, people or other) as long as you film from public property, in this case, a city owned park. The Security Guards at Gracie Mansion had their own ideas about filming laws and essentially threatened us into keeping our filming of the location to a minimal. They even went as far as to threaten to confiscate my camera gear if they felt I was being intrusive. With that, the actor and I made the shoot as quick as possible, keeping the mansion framed in the backdrop, but not going as far as to film the location by itself or from close-up angles. We took about 15 takes of the actor reciting the sonnet in various character voices and then called it quits when Parks Authority vehicles started showing up. We managed to get in one great take in an authentic Shakespearean dialect. Keep in mind too that my camera gear on this project was a canon HDSLR, a handheld microphone and a small tripod. At the time of production and still, at the time I write, none of this gear legally requires a permit to utilize on city property.
It took me a few weeks to edit, mainly because of my production of The Spaceship. When I finally got around to delivering the final cut, I didn’t hear from the producer of the Sonnet Project, Ross, for a good part of the summer. Last night he e-mailed me to ask that I re-film it or at the very least, re-edit it with more b-roll shots of Gracie Mansion. He made sure to include a snarky little sentence at the end of his e-mail: “can you create a new edit that adheres more accurately to the expectations of the project?” Well, the answer is no, not unless the Shakespeare Exchange is willing to send a producer, with permits, to take care of the business end of filming in what the City of New York clearly perceives to be a sensitive location. Hear me out: I have no problem producing film or video on a pro-bono basis – I hate HATE HATE money, especially when it concerns an artistic endeavor like this. I think it has destroyed film, theater and other forms of art, and has even been responsible for the constant near collapsing of my current feature film project. Therefore, I am more than willing to play ball and not ask for ‘nor expect compensation for any of the experimental film work that I do – but I will not produce a single frame if that means risking confiscation of my gear. I’m okay too with the producing organization setting specific guidelines, but if they’re going to be picky about such guidelines, they need to provide the artists providing these pro-bono services and works of art with the resources necessary to stick with these guidelines. In this case, they should have sent us permits and a representative equipped to deal with any security or police that might try to shut the production down.
That is all I have to report. Unfortunately it’s not the happy result I had hoped for when I started this adventure with the Sonnet Project. The most I wanted was a completed short film on their website that I could post a link to. It would have been a simple and rewarding entry on Film Anthropology. Instead it has become a warning to artists and filmmakers to be careful about who you offer your free time to, or at the very least, ask more questions “what if this happens, or that” etc.