I have this friend who married a karate instructor, which isn't by itself all that remarkable, except that it allows everyone else to refer to him as "the ninja" and give them Christmas presents of plastic throwing stars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and the like. It's one of those running jokes that's more amusingly self-referential than actually funny to anyone outside a radius of ten people.
To some extent, that's the feeling I get when I watch Sujewa Ekanayake's Date Number One — that I'm watching a self-referential film that's much more entertaining to the creators than it is to an uninvolved third party.
The film revolves around five first date vignettes, ranging from a ninja (punk musician John Stabb Schroeder) looking for love to the pursuit of a long-term threesome to a woman who uses air quotes to the point of overkill. All five contain the same lo-fi production values and are indistinguishable in terms of writing and stylistic techniques, which gives the film a certain cohesiveness that, depending on your point of view, may or may not work to the film's advantage. That is to say, you could certainly make an argument for each segment to have its own distinct look. Whether or not they should, I'm not sure.
But if I had to choose, I'd say they should, since one of the chief problems with Date Number One comes from a production style that's so consistently frustrating. Virtually every shot in the film is a loosely-constructed composition, sloppy and with an abundance of head room, where the camera seems completely unsure of where it wants to be, almost as if it wandered in off the street and happened upon these first dates. It reminds me of things I shot before I knew how to shoot things.
As a stylistic choice used for a specific purpose, this isn't so bad, but without some fundamental framing and composition, the camera looks disinterested, like it can't be bothered to get in place for a two shot that does something as simple as have both actors in the frame. So, what you get is a two shot where the ninja is in the frame, but his date is just out of it and the camera has to pan over slightly to catch her dialogue, at which point the ninja is out of the frame. Rarely does the camera seem to make any strong, artistically-driven choices that further the story, nor does it do something as simple as backing up a couple feet and having the confidence to stay with a master shot. There's a distinct feeling that the film might at any moment get fed up with these characters and move on to something else, but not in a way that invests the audience. Rather, it gives the impression that if the film doesn't really care, why should we?
But maybe the camera doesn't care because the characters haven't given it anything to care about. With a few exceptions (Jennifer Blakemore comes to mind), the performances are wooden and stilted, the sort of thing you get in student films where the filmmaker recruits actors from the football team, and the script feels like a first draft of something that might eventually become substantial and inventive. The actors play it like they've just recently memorized the text and large chunks of the dialogue have the feel of something inspired either by a textbook (most of the dialogue on quantum physics) or a soapbox ("…the enemies of choice are not interested in dialogue and discovery of new and better perspectives. They want women to go back to 'their place' so their neo-conservative, God-fearing, moral majority crap…").
Clearly this is a cast comprised of friends and cohorts willing to give up their free time to get the film finished, and it's hard to fault a no-budget film for going in that direction, but when the performances range from adequate to embarrassing, there has to be a better approach. You could, for example, limit the size of your cast or make a film that isn't as heavily dependent on dialogue, thus minimizing the impact of the performances. But relying on a large cast of non-actors in a film with long stretches of conversation is a recipe for disaster. A good cast can hide a lot of awkward scripting, but an inexperienced cast with anything less than a great script is lethal.
Sadly, the script for Date Number One is littered with cliche and exposition, constantly running afoul of the mandate to "show, don't tell", is mostly devoid of subtext, contains dialogue that reads better than it sounds, and you can see most of the jokes coming far in advance. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good screenplay. The title cards don't help, interrupting the film to tell us things we don't need to know, like that the bartender is the ninja's twin (Why do we need to know this? Why does it matter? Why are we seeing this actor again?), or telling us a proverb seconds before the actors talk about it. Such is the mark of a film either completely unsure of itself or struggling to incorporate audience feedback.
Part of the problem with Date Number One has to do with the sequence of events. The first two segments combine for over half of the 115-minute running time and both segments are at least ten minutes longer than they need to be. So, by the time we get to the second half of the film (which contains segments three and five, the two strongest), our patience is worn thin, especially by the ninja segment, which fills the first thirty minutes with what is easily the film's weakest performance. Trimming that first hour to something more manageable would do wonders.
But that alone wouldn't make it a good film, just a shorter one with fewer problems. What it needs is some harsh re-writes and a cast with a modicum of acting experience. There's no shortage of aspiring actors in the world more than willing to be in a film. Casting people just because they happen to be your friends and have free time is counter-productive and undermines the end product, especially when there are better alternatives willing and able to do the job. Similarly, it never hurts to get a director of photography who will do more than use the camera's auto focus and exposure. Such are the little things that a casual observer won't mind, but others will, and it severely limits the potential audience. There's value to doing everything yourself, but there's usually more value in seeing if there's people around who can just as easily do it better. This film would have been better served with the latter.
Starring: John Stabb Schroeder, Julia Stemper, Jennifer Blakemore, Shervin Boloorian, Dele Williams, and Christine D. Lee
Cinematography by: Sujewa Ekanayake
Written and directed by: Sujewa Ekanayake
$10,000/115 min/Washington, D.C.
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