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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Little Hours

by writer/director Jeff Baena

When I was growing up, my parents were cool enough to allow me to have cable television in my bedroom. I remember one night, when I was 11 years old, I caught the middle of a really strange film that was unlike anything I had seen before. It was terrifyingly brutal yet coolly seductive, alien and exciting. Its clinical, steady hand inspired awe in me….

Moments later my dad walked in to say goodnight, so I asked him if he knew what I was watching. This was before scrolling guides. He wasn’t sure but thought it was maybe a “weird movie” he had heard of called A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps if he had actually seen it, he’d have forbidden me from continuing on. (Or, maybe not. When I was even younger, I tried to get him to rent D.C. Cab by describing the story to him based on my recollection of the trailer. Somehow the wires crossed, and he picked up Escape from New York instead. I watched the whole thing and was so confused at what I just witnessed and why Mr. T never showed up.)

The next afternoon when we went to the video store, I asked him if he could recommend any other “weird movies” as if that were some kind of genre in and of itself. He told me he had heard Fellini’s 8 1/2 was supposed to be pretty weird, but he had never actually seen it either. So, I rented it.

8 1/2 literally changed my life. Its meta, dreamlike narrative and effortless vacillation between comedy and drama, fantasy and realism, and the grotesque and the sublime, ushered in the realization that movies could be the pure expression of a singular voice and vision, as unique as a fingerprint. It challenged me. I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker that day.

I sought out other “weird movies,” sleepers and hidden gems by trawling movie channels at the witching hour. Fellini led to David Lynch, John Waters and Hal Ashby. One of the benefits of being an adolescent night owl with a premium cable subscription was unfettered access to cinematic marginalia that didn’t quite make the primetime cut. Encore was still in its infancy and would exhibit a veritable treasure trove of ‘70s masterpieces like Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud and Michael Ritchie’s Smile, most likely because they were cheap and had to fill out their programming scheduling with something.

USA’s “Night Flight” and The Movie Channel’s “Joe Bob Briggs’ Drive-In Theater” exposed me to experimental short films, avant-garde music and the delights of ironically appreciating Wings Hauser vehicles that would later manifest in my appreciation of such F+ masterpieces as Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. I learned one need not look in vain for the philosophical underpinnings of the vertiginous Wizard of Gore or that humor can come in all shades, like the deep blackness of Heathers or the absurd lightness of The Jerk. There was the quiet, haunting beauty of Picnic at Hanging Rock and the manic enthusiasm of Cherry 2000. I’ll never forget the euphoria of watching Raising Arizona for the first time in my bed when I most definitely should have been asleep.

I used late night cable television to voraciously devour the offbeat and the under-appreciated. All these flavors of the unfamiliar were at my disposal. I just had to stay awake and be open-minded. And, with a little luck and probably the arbitrary efforts of a few of the lowest bidders, I was treated to an education. This was my film school before I was even in the 9th grade. It connected me to a world outside of the culturally bereft landscape of Miami in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and introduced me to a tradition of filmmaking that inspires me to this day as I make my own movies. I am forever indebted to cable television for ultimately awakening the director inside me and sparking my own personal weirdness.

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