Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Days 1&2: Fade in - brainwash

I'm not sure where to start, so I'll just ramble what's on my mind, as I am exhausted after day 2. Exhausted in a good way, of course. Anyone who knows me, knows how hard it is for me to sit still watching movies. I can sit and write for six hours without getting up, but I can't watch movies for too long. I need to be working, creating... doing. Well, today we sat for 12 hours watching one another's works with only three breaks for a brief lunch and dinner. The quality of some of the stuff was amazing. I'm not sure why some of those people are going to film school. Their work is phenominal. It's good to know that I'm in excellent company.

So yesterday was orientation day. We spent God knows how much time talking about production safety, insurance, and scheduling policies. Because AFI is a production-heavy program, everything has to be covered by insurance. And because these will be relatively large crews working on the productions, we have to work by detailed organized schedules. Both elements were unnecessary with my guerrila no-budget short films of the past. Also, by design, the AFI is set to make our life difficult for the next two years so that we are prepared to deal with the challenges of the studio system.

I will direct three films the first year, each budgeted at $3,200. Unfortunately, I will not be able to screen them outside the AFI, so I will not be able to put them on my web site. Besides, they will be 30 minutes each.

And the second year, I will direct my thesis film, costing $50,000. That one I will be able to show at festivals anywhere, but the AFI still owns it.

Anyways, they were not kidding when they said the AFI will own your soul. Our schedules are crazy. Pretty much, you wake up, you go to AFI or on a shoot. You get home after 9 or 10 p.m. You get some sleep and you wake up to go back to school. Will probably have Sundays off, though.

I love this experience though. I will get into more detail as we go.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The journey begins...

So here it starts. I've been waiting for this day for a long time. I'm finally starting school. AFI, here we go. Last night we had a party at one of the producer and writer fellows' home. The enthusiasm of all the starting students was amazing. There were no pretensious egotisitcal attidtudes. We're all going into this place to make movies that affect and entertain the world.

So tomorrow, Monday, it all begins. I have a pretty good idea what to expect. They said no matter how hard they tell you this year is going to be, it's harder still. I wouldn't want anything less.


Friday, August 26, 2005

The Composers: James Newton Howard

Continuing my blogs on my favorite film composers, and how they've influenced me...

James Newton Howard is one of the top film composers living today. His scores include Wyatt Earp, Signs, Sixth Sense, The Village, Waterworld, Alive, Dinosaur, The Fugitive, Unbreakable, Outbreak, Hidalgo, French Kiss, Grand Canyon, One Fine Day... the list goes on.

One of the reasons I'm always looking forward to JN Howard's scores is because not only is his music brilliantly crafted with layers and thematic development, but also because he loves to mix ethnic sounds and/or focus on solo instruments in his scores. I'll use Waterworld as an example. It's one of my favorite scores (note that sometimes the best scores come from mediocre movies as the music has more work to do to fix the movie). In Waterworld, Howard used a mix of the following:

Big brassy orchestra
Full choir
African drumming
Electronic sounds
Australian Dijerdoo and jewharp

All the above layers worked together to form a powerhouse of a score. One of the fun things he does with the heroic brassy Mariner theme is after he presents it at full assault with trumpets, trombones and horns, he inverts the theme and accompanies it with funky African drumming. Check the album out. The big action tracks are fantastic!

In French Kiss, he uses a Harmonica solo. In One Fine Day, he paints Gershwinesque colors with the jazzy piano and orchestra. The Fugitive had dark textures accompanying a lonely saxophone. In Hidalgo, he interchanged between two colors, Americana textures and Arabian deserty flavors with Arabic wailing voice and muzmar.

I hated The Village as a movie, but loved the score. The solo violin arpeggios accompanying subdued orchestral chord progressions showed a new approach from this brilliant composer. He chose a simple, less crowded sound.

Aside from being in love with his music, I've learned two great lessons from James Newton Howard over the years:

1) Oftentimes, less is more. You don't have to over-do something to be effective - as in the Village
2) Productivity under pressure. He's said that some of his best music was created under incredible pressure. He inspires me with how hard he pushes himself past his limits.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

This Blogging business...

It's quite fascinating when I think about it, that I can say whatever I have on my mind and have it published to the world with just a few clicks. I first heard about blogs about a year ago and thought it to be a cool concept, but I didn't start one until a few days ago, even thought I've been a writer for 16 years now. I've been writing ever since I moved to America.

I enjoy reading what other normal people have to say much more than what the newspapers and TV want me to hear.

I just read someone write about Bahrain and the power of Blogging in how voices were heard as opposed to being oppressed. Do you reaize how exciting this is? Anything can be said now. The power of the blog can do away with sensorship. Now if only we can figure out a way to make all the bloggers say the same thing. Just kidding!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Half Mideast, Half Midwest, and a Dash of LA

One of the things that I like about my 29 years of breathing on this globe is that I did half my breathing in Jordan, and the other half in the US. Actually, over 16 years in the US now. And with this mixed bag of experiences comes my sense of longing and not longing to any one specific place. Amman, Columbus, and LA each contribute something different to who I am.

As a filmmaker, the more things I can relate to, the better I can express a truth to a character or situation.

I had my chilhood in Amman: busy city, innocent culture, Arabic upbringing. I loved the noise of the cars in the streets, the corn guy after school, or the eskimo orange-flavored ice-cream in the summer. The one you bought for 5 piasters from the neighborhood supermarket owned by Abu fill-in-the-gap. Riding my bicycle, showing off soccer moves in front of girls at school, or even playing catch during recess. Remember those innocent years?

My teenage years were spent in a quiet Ohio suburb of Columbus called Gahanna. Lots of green: trees, grass, bushes, shrubs, leafs, woods...you get the picture. Hot humid Summers, golden reddish Autumns, snow covered Winters, and beautiful rosey Springs. High school was the most isolated experience of my life. I withdrew to my fortress of solitude (my room) and started writing, storyboarding, and experimenting with my camera. My college years were alright. I put the movie dreams aside after doing theatre for a year and became a business guy. My corporate America experience was amazing, but it ran out of steam and turned into burn-out after four years of working my ass off some 12 hours a day.

And now I'm in LA where people come from different cities around the US and the world, all to follow a dream.

I plan to draw on all my varied experiences and observations to make the best movies I can make.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

10 Film scores

Here's a list, a sampling, of ten film scores that I would recommend buying:

In no special order
1) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Michael Kamen)
2) Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann)
3) Dances with Wolves (John Barry)
4) Superman (John Williams)
5) Waterworld and/or Wyatt Earp (James Newton Howard)
6) Batman (Danny Elfman)
7) Total Recall (Jerry Goldsmith)
8) The Hunt for Red October and/or Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris)
9) Star Treck 2 (James Horner)
10) Lord of the Rings trilogy (Howard Shore)

There are probably 200 others I would highly recommend, but this is a good introduction to my favorite composers. So if you feel like exploring something new and fun... now you know where to start.


The Composers: Michael Kamen

In this series, I will introduce you to the artists who had the greatest influence on my life, and I will try to share what exactly it is that makes them unique and important to me.

Meet Michael Kamen, my greatest influence as a teenager and beyond. Michael was the unique musical voice behind films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Don Juan De Marco, Brazil, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, X-Men, What Dreams May Come, Band of Brothers, and some 80 other films. He was also the genius who brought the fusion of Rock with Classical orchestra for musicians like Eric Clapton, Metallica, Cold Play, Sting, Bob Dylan, Eurythmics, and a few dozen others.

Michael passed away on November 18, 2003 of heart failure at the age of 55.

I've written a tribute to him on my web site, so you can check it out. Here, I want to focus on what makes his music special.

I was first consciously impacted by this genius musical voice when I heard his score for Robin Hood. The crisp heroic brass fan fares, the vibrant timpani, aggressive strings on both ends of the register echoing musical phrases... rumbling basses and celli accompanying the sweeping high strings with Middle Eastern-flavored colors. He even used Middle Aged instruments to give the film darker textures for the evil witch, Shota.

Then you had the wonderful solo instruments, the oboe and flute flutters set against a bed of warm violins playing the love theme of Maid Marian and Robin of Loxley.

The score was loaded with orchestral colors that for the first time woke me up to the magic of movie music. I had already fallen in love with other scores like Dances with Wolves and Superman of course, but this was my conscious awakening to the appreciation of film music as a teenager. I was hooked from that point on.

Michael Kamen's sound is very unique. It is both sad and beautiful at the same time. Listen to his score for "What Dreams May Come", the 1999 Robin Williams movie, and you will hear some of the most deeply beautiful music to penetrate your heart. Standout instruments in this score were the Cello and the Oboe. This is what inspired my dogs's names.

Then you have Action Kamen. He was the inventor of the sound of action movies from the mid 1980's. He was very witty, and his music reflected this with its staccato Mickey-Mousing, hitting certain beats around the action. For example, he was the first person to build up a climactic pum pum pum pum that suddenly stops to be followed by an explosion. Watch Die Hard starring Bruce Willis. It's one of the cleverset film scores of all time. A classic!

I hope this will open up an interest in discovering the power of film music, a form that changed my life because of its depth. It was my best friend throughout high school and college. Food for my soul. More to come on my favorite composers...

Friday, August 19, 2005

God Bless Our Jordan

I don't have much more to add over what Jordan Planet bloggers have said. I can use some very colorful language in describing how I feel when I hear about terrorists in Jordan. I hope they catch those guys and dip them in a pool of boiling olive oil upside down...slowly...head first.

At the same time, I am comforted in knowing that the Jordanian Mukhabarat, the intelligence folks, are probably more competent than any other in the world because of the Big Ear listening to everything going on around the country. Jordan will continue to be safe.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Cello and an Oboe

Ah, my favorite part... this is where I get to introduce you to my boys, Cello and Oboe. I never grew up with dogs around, but suddenly one day in 2002 I decided I wanted to get a dog... why the hell not. So I walked into a fish store and instantly fell in love with this little two-month-old Akita/Collie/Shepherd mix. I bought him that moment and drove home while he sat in my lap. Never did I know that he would grow into a mammoth beast of 120 pounds. I called him Cello. But I was at work ten hours a day, and Cello needed a friend, so we checked out several places until we finally found a baby Golden Retriever at a dog farm. We called him Oboe. And from that day on, these boys became my best friends.

Dogs are such a commitment. I sympathize with single parents because I know what it's all about. You have to be home at certan times, you restrict your freedoms, you have to vacume every single day and constantly clean everywhere...

But it's worth it. Dogs remind you to enjoy the simple pleasures in life like a walk or hike up the canyon. You see them wag their tail and you forget about those stressful things in your life... you know... work, work, and work. You also change your perception of material things. Dogs do the funniest things, especially when they immitate human behavior and surprise you with certain intelligence they exhibit. People could also learn a thing or two about loyalty from dogs.

Maybe it's my paternal instinct at work. Some of you may understand this, but probably most Jordanians won't. Maybe it's just an American thing in me that most Arabs don't really understand, but truly I believe dogs are one of God's sincerest gifts to man. Dog owners know it. Wouldn't you say?

One final note: the latest genetic research has found that humans and dogs share 85% of the same genetic make-up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Summer Full of Light Bulbs

So I quit my job early. It was June already and I had to go to Jordan for my brother's graduation. Besides, it had been over a year and a half since I had woken up to that cool morning breeze that carries with it the fresh scent of Amman's five a.m.
I needed to get away from that corporate prison on the 49th floor of downtown LA. I told my boss to pull the plug. Let me go. Set me free. Fire my ass! I am ready to take that leap of faith, and jump into student life again. And I'll do it early with great pleasure as I would finally have the summer off to think, to prepare, and to rev my writing engines.

Here I am exactly two months later, and I've done a million productive things that make June seem like ten years ago.

The biggest accomplishment has been writing a major screenplay that I will keep private for now, but I hope the whole world will see it on a silver screen in a couple of years. It has something to do with sitting under a tree. It's a movie that links all the social classes we have in Amman. Laith and I started this idea on a napkin one afternoon while sitting at the Cheesecake Factory. We developed a concept, and from that point on, I spent five to six hours every morning at Starbucks writing away and obsessing about this movie's universe.

Also very exciting, was my trip to Amman where I made two shorts films, "Suffi Suffi" (Pak the Car) and "Crossroads".

You know, ideas come to us all the time. Making movies is simply figuring out how to approach communicating them, then actually putting together a game plan to execute.
for example, Suffi Suffi came about when I went to lunch with the folks at the Royal Film Commission. Pheadra (who ended up acting in the movie) was driving and all the guys in the car were suggesting how she should drive. Then when she was about to park, all the guys volunteered their opinions. And here I sat watching and remembering the million times I'd seen this happen in Amman, guys telling girls how to park. So I told them we have to make a movie out of this situation. A few days later I brought my camera over and gathered the group. I mapped out certain things on a whiteboard, then we all improvised the rest. It also helped that my brother brought his hilarious friend, Nadim Mshahwar, over. Everyone involved did a brilliant job with their own contribution.

Crossroads was a great experience also because it was a very sincere script written by Lina based on her story, and I really wanted to make a good dramatic Jordanian short without quirky comedy or Hollywood-style suspense. Working with non-actors was a great experience because I think Arabic (Jordanian especially) lends itself to natural delivery. Performances came across as very genuine and real.

Also, it was an amazing experience to have the screenings of ten of my films at the Royal Film Commission.

I got to read a couple of novels and a stack of film books. Watched a lot of old and foreign films.

I hope this blog wasn't too long. I ramble on sometimes, but the bottom line is that in two months you can get a million things done. And you can shave your head to prove it. Whatever that means.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

In the shell of a nut

I'll start this first blog by telling you my story, ever so briefly...

The facts: I'm 29 now. I was born in Amman, Jordan. Moved to the US when I was 13. Lived in Ohio for 14 years. Studied Business Marketing at the Ohio state University, then went right into the telecommunications industry working for Inter-Tel Technologies. I had a very rewarding career selling voice and data solutions to big companies across Ohio and the US. I gained expertise in PBX platforms, voice over IP, Cisco routers and switches, call center software applications, video conferencing... you name it. I built solid business relationships, made lots of money, bought lots of fun toys, and then one day woke up and realized that I had lost sight of my dream. I always wanted to make movies.

So on April 12, 2003, I had everything packed, and I set out on a cross-country drive to Los Angeles. I would start over from scratch. While using my telecom background by day to keep an income, I invested in a nice Canon XL1 camera, a light kit, a Mac Powerbook with Final Cut editing software and made a group of friends, mostly very talented actors. I wrote short scripts and we made movies together and had fun like kids playing in a schoolyard. I felt alive again. I love LA because of the creative stimulus you can generate when collaborating to create movies. You can watch the movies on my site (www.QuaProductions.com)

I've been in LA for nearly two and a half years now, and I've directed 17 shorts films, made a bunch of other short skits, and wrote two screenplays. It's very very satisfying to be following your heart. People used to ask "When are you going to get married?" Now they know it's the last thing on my mind. There are so many more exciting things ahead than settling down.
There's a right time for everything, and now is the time to dream big dreams and work the plan to make them happen.

Having said that, I am about to begin my MFA in Film Directing at the AFI, the American Film Instit