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Making Honey -- Going for the Gold,
While Staying True to the Sticky and Messy Nature of Experience
An Interview with Filmmaker David Ball
The following text is excerpted from an email exchange between film programmer Wesley Tank and filmmaker David Ball, the creator of the amazing (but still under appreciated) Honey, which I programmed in 2007 for an independent film festival at Harvard. (There are many mentions of the film on the site, but click here and here to read a few comments by Ray Carney about Ball's film. And click here to read "The Honey Manifesto," a statement written by the director about the project.) Since the following text was assembled from several different emails between Tank and Ball, I would note that I have edited it very slightly, and in few places changed the order of the questions and answers to improve its intelligibility. -- Ray Carney
Wesley Tank: I recently saw Honey via internet stream, and I loved it. I would love to include it as part of a series of films I'm screening in Milwaukee called "Transmutative Cinema." Would it be possible to acquire a DVD copy of your film, as well as your blessing to screen? Thank you for making such an excellent film.
David Ball: Thanks for your kind words about the movie. Can you tell me how you heard of it? I'd be happy to send you a copy of something I wrote before making the movie, the Honey Manifesto, which was/is an artistic mission statement of sorts.
Tank: I heard about it through my friend Ryan who is helping me program this series. I believe he heard about it through Ray Carney.
Ball: Ray is the man. He has really inspired me. I wish he ran the world.
Tank: I really thought the film was amazing. Something about the way it was written, and the way energy is so nicely balanced between the actors kept me in a constant state of diving forward, trying to understand, unnerved, that it really felt luminous by the end when I realized nothing would be tied together in a neat little bow. What have you done after Honey?
Ball: I wrote a novel a few years ago, and it was as artistically successful/commercially unsuccessful as the movie. Now I'm focusing on an equally quixotic career--legal academic writing about prison reform--and am probably going to hold tight until my kids get a little older and I get tenure.
Tank: I am very interested to hear what your approach was in making this film. I'm also curious to know how the transformation happened between filmmaking to writing fiction, and then to legal academic writing. A dramatic twist! I'm in the process of completing my first feature- as well as in the process of getting married, so I am beginning to understand how having a family can make decision-making become more practical. In any case, I really hope you make another film.
Ball: I made Honey just before getting married, and I guess I was working through some shit. I just celebrated my 10th anniversary, though, so I guess it worked. The filmmaking and writing fiction were just different sides of the same coin. I wrote fiction before filmmaking. To me, directing is all about being the last word: are we done? yes. is that the cut you want? yes. Is that the performance we want? yes. Is the lighting OK? etc. I was a bit stymied in my writing (I say in hindsight, which, counter to the old adage, is just as blurry as foresight), and I had the confidence to write a novel after making the movie. The novel took a long time and allowed me to work through even more shit, so it was worth it, but the commercial side of things was equally heartbreaking. So I went into legal academia. I still write about things I care passionately about, but there's a better market for it. I spent two years on an article and it just got picked up by the Columbia law review. So, odd as it sounds, I'm still pursuing my muse, just in a way that makes raising a family possible.
Tank: You seem to have a very clear vision of how to maneuver the mangled/unsteady emotional situations of Honey. Can you give me an idea of your process during shooting/editing? Was there a ton of rehearsal? I noticed you do some cutting between different takes, getting a character saying the same thing in more than one way. I've been doing this in my film, and I was excited to notice it in yours. How many takes would you normally do of a scene? What was editing like? I really enjoyed the writing. Was it your intention to keep the audience's stomach in its throat?
Ball: It was casting and getting a crew that was committed to the idea. The manifesto (click here to read David Ball's "Honey Manifesto") was really key to getting everyone to (a) know what I was after and (b) commit to it. And everyone knew that everyone else wanted the same stuff. I did some different stuff in casting--I actually worked with actors and gave them direction to see what it was going to be like to work with them.
As for editing, I worked on it with my best friend at the time, Josh Apter, who was fucking superb and who midwifed the film. We'd watched a whole lot of shit together (Cassavetes, etc., basically all the films I name checked in the Manifesto plus Soderbergh's films, particularly the Limey) and we just went for it. For me the script was crazy, then the performances were crazy, then the editing was crazy. I approached each step as the opportunity to do the same kind of work to a different part of the film, with the same goals and the same commitment. It wouldn't have been right to do a "safe" edit after writing such an unsafe script and getting such unsafe performances.
So we did rehearse a lot, and the actors were fucking amazing. On the rooftop with Charles and Ruth, Laura (Ruth) did her lines in ONE FUCKING TAKE. Seriously. The lighting you see at the end of that scene is completely real. Chris (Charles) got 2 takes for his, but only because the batteries on the sound went out. And before Laura started her take, she said, "I don't buy it. I don't know why she does this." It seemed really self-destructive. But we'd worked on it enough where we had some shorthand to get her back into it. And I obviously loved working with all the actors, but particularly Chris, Laura, and Anthony.
We shot everything in rough order, which also helped.
One other thing is that I was open to working with the actors in different ways, and the DP, another great friend and artist named Pete Olsen, was open, too. So, for example, in the first scene where Ruth pours a beer on John's head, that's REAL. I'd been saying cut before then, and then we were about to take a break, so I just decided not to say cut. So the look on Laura's face as you can see her thinking, "Am I going to do it?" and then the smile as she actually does it, and the shock on Anthony's face, all that is gold. Pete does an amazing job of tracking the action from her face to the can pouring to Anthony's head, and then they just went for it the rest of the way. Almost all of the rest of that scene is from that one, powerful take.
One other note--those slaps were not Foleyed. Anthony took one for the team.
I should also note that we shot that scene in a HoJo's across the street from Madison Square Garden. A few days after we shot that scene, the NY Post came out with a story listing the top ten places to buy sex in NY. That was one of them. No wonder they didn't bat an eye when one woman and 6 guys checked in at 4 p.m. and checked out at 4 a.m.
Anyway, in answer to your other question about writing, the writing came very easily, which was weird. I think I owe a lot to reading the script to Scenes from a Marriage before seeing it. Bergman does this thing where no one responds immediately to anything. It comes out a few lines later at the earliest. I tried to use that. I also didn't want anyone to say anything meaningful, which is why the rooftop scene is so difficult. But mostly I just let myself be as weird as possible.
As for the audience's stomach, I didn't want to put anyone through anything I wasn't putting myself through. And I think that's why the way I worked was so important. I didn't ask the actors to make themselves vulnerable so that I or anyone else could laugh at them. I was right there with them. And the shit was really hard, but they were such a great group.
I think even the one scene that I probably fucked up on as an actor's director turned out well--the "joke" scene on the couch between Sharon and Charles. I've known Katie Firth forever, and something about that day I was just indecisive. We did that scene a billion times, and I think I really ended up not protecting her as much as I should/could have. I wasn't articulating what I wanted, and I didn't think she was giving it to me, so we just kept going. But she delivered, all right--I think I inadvertently beat her down to get that performance, although, for all I remember, we used really early takes.
Anyway, thanks for giving me the excuse to reminisce.
Andrew Bujalski on the art and business of film
/ Charles Lyons on going for broke
/ The Puffy Chair
/ Why Film Production Majors Should Be Replaced by Auto Mechanics
/ JuneBug, 2046, and Mutual Appreciation
/ David Chien on Caveh Zahedi's I am a Sex Addict
/ Donal Foreman on Independent Film
/ Donal Foreman on the Irish Television and Film Industry
/ Quotations about the artistic process/ Tarkovsky on film school and trying to please people
/ Donal Foreman on the State of the Art / Other films and filmmakers / Quiet City / Henry James, Art of Fiction 1 / Henry James, Art of Fiction 2
/ Emerson, Circles, 1 / Emerson, Circles, 2 / Avedon on Alfredson / David Ball Interview