An Indie Film Odyssey: Making (and Screening) “Homer and Penelope”
Catherine Epstein tracks the ups and downs of Danny Powell's first feature film.December 8th, 2013 | Catherine Epstein
Partway through Homer’s The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is advised, in the midst of epic challenges, “Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured.” The line is grandiose and majestic, but it somehow feels relevant to young filmmaker Danny Powell, whose first feature, Homer and Penelope, endured its share of mythic challenges.
Powell and I worked together for two years at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. (And in full disclosure, I contributed to his Kickstarter fund for the making of Homer and Penelope.) During down time between our tours with school kids, he shared how the film was going from week to week and month to month. Like most large-scale artistic projects, Powell’s sounded like it had gone through fantastic days and nightmarish ones. I hadn’t spoken to him since he finished editing, and I wondered how he felt now that it was finished. Because Powell tends to play things down—never complaining, for instance, if he was saddled with 30 rowdy middle schoolers who insisted on climbing all over our priceless hundred-year-old projectors—it wasn’t until our latest conversation that I realized just how many obstacles he’d faced, and what it took to get Homer and Penelope made.
Powell didn’t set out to make things tough for himself; in fact he’d deliberately shaped the project to be doable. “I had two or three other feature-length screenplays that I had written and tried to raise money to produce, and it just wasn’t happening.” He recalled, “They weren’t big projects, but they had elements that I probably couldn’t accomplish as a first-time feature filmmaker. So I got to a point where I said, ‘Okay, how can I approach the next story in a way that will allow me to actually get it done, actually make it happen?’”
With this in mind, Powell began writing a story with a small cast and simple premise, about two strangers getting to know each other over the course of a day. The names Homer and Penelope, he acknowledged, are clear references to The Odyssey’s author and the faithful wife at the story’s center. Like the epic poem, Powell said his film explores ideas of searching and longing, as well as themes of memory and returning home. But Powell was quick to explain that he’s not a writer who, “you know, comes up with these crazy names that speak to what a character is about.” He continued, “I don’t want to plot everything out. I don’t want to [make a film where] everything makes sense and everything is spelled out for you.”
As he explored these ideas, Powell did set one challenge for himself: around the time of writing he also decided to film in a single take. He doesn’t remember whether that method or the story came to him first, but it created unique opportunities for the telling of his particular story, which explores how the past and present collide in the characters’ lives.
Many films deal with shifts in time through flashback or simply by maintaining chronology, but that didn’t interest Powell. He felt that cutaways or flashbacks would lessen the emotional impact of the past on his characters. Without giving away specifics, Powell explained that the audience can see things from the past materializing in the present, but they are not trotted out in traditional ways. Friends and collaborators didn’t always agree with this approach.
“There were times when I got pushback, and people wanted me to try to work a cut into [the film] and I just wouldn’t do it. I wanted things to unfold in a way that would allow [the past and the present] to be happening at the same time, and not manipulate the simultaneous nature of those two occurrences.” Powell drew inspiration from other artists, including poets, writers, and musicians, who also work within self-made restrictions. “It’s absolutely challenging, but also very liberating, and it really does help shape the film in a very special way,” he said, and then laughed, adding, “I don’t know if it’s a limitation that I would put on a future project.”
Things went smoothly at first. Powell completed the screenplay in January 2011 and began assembling his cast and crew that March. By July, he had secured a location in New York State and cast both leads. Because of the critical role a Steadicam operator plays in a single-shot feature, Powell’s search for that position was exhaustive. After several months he found a strong match who also served as cinematographer; he had a busy work schedule so Powell worked around him and settled on a late September shoot.
But just one month before production, the Steadicam operator left Powell’s project for another that was pushed back. “It was hard enough finding one person who was game and prepared and, you know, ready to get in the trenches with us,” said Powell. “How do we find someone else who’s willing to do that?” Powell spoke with several Steadicam operators, many of whom expressed concern about doing a feature in one take. “It takes its toll, it’s not an easy thing,” Powell explained. “You train for it.”
As Powell began the new search with only weeks before shooting, he lost his location. It had seemed like a sure thing at first, and was even positioned behind his lead actress’s home, but Powell later discovered power struggles between the citizens who controlled the land. “We tried and tried to get them to reconsider,” Powell wrote in an email. “It was just as confusing to us. It seemed like it was a ‘yes’ again then no, in fact, it wasn't.”
Meanwhile, Powell continued preparations for the single take. Using bird’s eye views of his location from satellite images, he mapped out the many “routes” the camera and actors would have to take, labeling each shift with a letter of the alphabet. “I remember using quite a bit of the alphabet,” he recalled.
Powell’s unique goals also required some uncommon rehearsal practices. To generate authentic spontaneity between characters who’ve never met before, he’d originally hoped to create that situation for the actors too; he began rehearsing with them separately, hoping they wouldn’t meet until the shoot. Although that parameter was ultimately rebuffed by his actors, Powell insisted on rehearsing with them outside whenever weather allowed, in spaces including his shooting location and Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. This provided the physical space for mapping out blocking and choreography, but Powell recalled, “It was a bit of a test, too.
Fort Greene Park would be much louder and [more] uncontrollable than the shooting location, so I figured that if they could block out those distractions they’d be well prepared not to be affected by anything that might happen during the course of filming.” (As it turned out, one long take was interrupted by a group of people trotting into the frame on horseback.) “Basically,” he explained, “unless the Steadicam operator fell down during the take, we would keep rolling, so the actors needed to be more than 100 percent prepared.”
As the months went by, it became clear to Powell that the actor playing Homer was not, and might never be, at 100 percent, and felt he had to let the actor go. He found two other strong actors to play the role, but neither was available during the new production time. As production edged closer and closer, and no eligible actors arose, Powell slowly realized that he might need to step into the role. Although it wasn’t his preference, he felt comfortable in the role after writing and rehearsing for so many months. “It just sounds insane, and it probably was,” said Powell, laughing, “but that was another thing that was pretty much out of my control...and I knew [Homer] well enough that I think I could bring something to him that wouldn’t take away from the film.”
Following these multiple losses, Powell decided to delay production until the spring of 2012. After securing a new Steadicam operator, he settled on another location—an area in Maryland that was one of the first that he’d originally scouted.
Although the film had endured numerous obstacles, one helpful consequence of the delays was ample time for his lead actress to rehearse; Powell estimates she had a total of 10 months to practice her lines and choreography, and he made sure to schedule filming around the actress’s work schedule in late May.
A few weeks before the shoot started, the lead actress expressed that there was a conflict with her work, which Powell says she had guaranteed would not happen. Over the course of the next few days, although Powell says he doesn’t know exactly what happened on her end, it became clear that the actress could no longer be involved. “Now we’re really talking the end of the world,” Powell recalled, laughing. “You know, losing the [Steadicam operator and] cinematographer was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to that.” After all the other losses and changes, Powell explained, “The film had to continue with or without her. Changing anything would have cost a lot of money and the film would not have happened at all. I had worked too hard for too long and spent a lot of money to get to a point where all was go.” Originally cast in another role, actress Claire Duncan was quickly asked to play Penelope instead. Duncan and Powell had three weeks to prepare.
The many shifts in production—but the loss of location and lead actress in particular—forced Powell to reconsider his original vision of a single take, and ultimately abandon it. “I could have never asked Claire to learn her lines, plus blocking and choreography, in three weeks.” Had he demanded the cast and crew to maintain the single take, Powell believes, “we may not have a film now, or a film that works on any level.”
Production began on May 29th and, like most, it was not without unexpected problems and setbacks—the cinematographer’s truck broke down on the way to set the second day, depriving the film of a half-day of shooting—but it finally wrapped on May 31st, 2012, one year to the day since he had raised the money for the film.
Throughout our conversation I was struck by Powell’s attitude as he recalled the production. He describes losing the cinematographer and Steadicam operator a month before production as “sort of ” significant and describes the many challenges he faced as “a couple of setbacks that made us have to sort of rethink things a little bit.” I can’t tell if Powell is exactly at the point described in The Odyssey, looking back at difficulties with bliss, but it seems that he was helped by an even-keeled perspective.
Since wrapping, Powell was awarded a residency from the Edward F. Albee Foundation for the Homer and Penelope script, which gave him six weeks in Montauk, NY, to work on his next screenplay.
Reflecting on the process near the end of our conversation, Powell almost starts embodying that joyful quote from The Odyssey. “It’s really funny to me how Homer and Penelope itself sort of mirrors the production process because there were these moments of contradiction and duality and highs and lows kind of happening at the same time. In hindsight now, I learned from that and I grew from that. The story I wrote, the screenplay I wrote, and the film that we ended up actually making, they’re different in many ways,” he said. “But the spirit is still there.”
But Powell’s dedication to his work does not hinge on publicity or official endorsement. He’s ready to share it any way he can. “If I have to I'll take the film around myself and show it at universities, bookstores, cafes,” he wrote in an email. “I'll show it on the side of a building.”
As it turns out, Powell’s release of choice is even more accessible than the side of a building. From December 11-15, 2013, Homer and Penelope will be available to stream on Vimeo for free. If you’re reading this on any of those dates, click here to watch the entire film: http://vimeo.com/cinemawithcinema/hp.
If you’ve missed the window, watch the Homer and Penelope trailer.