Friday, February 17, 2012

“The Red Machine” – Breaking Codes, Secrets, Trust

By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Guest Blogger

US Navy code breakers sit in a stark, unremarkable room. They mechanically reveal messages from Japanese correspondence using time-tested code-cracking methods. Their precision is abruptly broken when a new code stymies one seasoned operator.

What to do?

This is the opening from which the movie The Red Machine reveals a super-secret spy mission undertaken in Washington, D.C. in 1935.  BMFI screened the deliciously intense film on Saturday, February 11, along with a comical companion short “newsreel”, Gandhi at the Bat. Filmmakers Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm, appearing with actor Roger Ainslie (Cmdr. Petrie), were all in attendance to answer audience questions.

The Red Machine actor Roger Ainslie and filmmakers Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm pose with the poster for the spy caper in BMFI's lobby.

Stephanie and Alec brought their enthusiasm for the spy/detective movie genre (along with fun movie swag) and discussed how they concocted the espionage film. Their deep interest in detective-style storytelling began with a book. “We were in New Orleans book shop and came upon The American Magic Codes: Ciphers and the Defeat of Japan,” Stephanie recalled. The US military’s use of a safecracker to steal a book containing Japanese communication codes sparked for them. That idea ignited when they were making the Gandhi short film.

“The actors from Gandhi inspired us and gave face to the story we were trying to shape,” Stephanie said. Based on a short story of the same name by Chet Williamson in a 1983 New Yorker magazine, Gandhi is a supposedly secret newsreel about the peacemaker’s 1933 visit to the US in which he attends a Yankees vs. A’s baseball game. The hilarious writing was brought to life in part through the authentic-looking visual effects that Stephanie and Alec created.

Lt. F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins) and Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Capello) 

Petite and wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘SPY’ on it, Stephanie explained that she and her partner look at spy themes for the fun challenges they present for the audience and themselves. “We’re drawn to pulp, spy, and thief storylines for the intrigue everyone experiences.” Intrigue fills each scene of The Red Machine, as the plot crescendos. A naval officer and safecracker are paired to secure a Japanese code book locked away in a US embassy. Their unlikely match seems questionable, until they discover others’ secret agendas.

The Red Machine’s title is based on the names US Navy code breakers would give to the machines they worked to easily identify country and code origins. “We tried to get a photograph of the real Red Machine,” Stephanie added. The request for a photo from the NSA reaped no bounty, so they looked at lots of photos of cipher machines and collaborated with their prop master to build what they thought it might look like. However, two years later they found one such photo on the NSA website. “We asked the wrong question,” she laughingly added. ”The machine was always there, but we literally asked for a photo of it. The right question would have been, 'Can you take a photo of it and send it to us?’”

Literal translations aside, the device created for the film was seen by Stephanie and Alec as the vehicle to set the characters in motion. “The idea of this machine was as a sort of precursor to what eventually would become the computer,” Stephanie noted.

The couple’s teamwork continued in post-production with Stephanie working as the primary editor, and Alec as sound editor. To maintain objectivity, they followed advice from a colleague who understood the pitfalls of working on a project with a partner. “A friend suggested that we remember to keep a pair of fresh eyes on each step,” Stephanie recalled. Stephanie would edit the film and Alec was the ‘fresh eyes’ to her choices. Likewise, after Alec did sound editing, Stephanie offered her opinions.

Eddie (Thoms-Capello) puts his skills to work in The Red Machine

As for their unintended code used to describe how they felt about the difficulty of their projects on a given day, they used The New York Times crossword day of the week as their opinion shorthand. Stephanie explained, “You know, Monday puzzles are usually the easiest ones, and by Friday, they’ve grown substantially more difficult. So we would say something like ‘this looks like a Tuesday,’ to communicate how close to the mark something was.” I thought their use of daily puzzle appearance was the perfect tool for filmmakers who are so taken with clever mystery.

Asked about the challenges they faced in making the self-financed film, Alec (a possible doppelganger for actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman) used the analogy of a mine car. “Keeping the mine car on the rails in the mine shaft as much as possible was, by far, the biggest challenge for me,” he said adding “there are so many factors that can push you off course.”

Stephanie’s reply was introspective: “Saying our goodbyes.” She added, “Once the script was done, it was sad but we knew we had to cast the film so that made me happy.” The cycle of one piece ending and one beginning juggled the sadness and joy throughout until the film’s eventual completion. The couple’s mix of practical and intangible reflections reminded me, an avid movie goer, that the human factor behind the movie magic is always present on and off the screen.
Some props and a costume from The Red Machine were on display in the atrium.
There were a lot of bean dishes (inexpensive protein) on the prop menu used for a scene in a Depression-era diner!

Stephanie’s closing remarks regarding the choice of the film’s time period offered a deeper glimpse into the couple’s purposeful approach to films. “Looking back on those times, we know they were very rough,” she shared, noting the Depression years and early events in pre-WWII Europe. “It’s our way of saying we got through those times and can get through these as well.”

Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.

1 comment:

  1. we discover why you were snapping all those photos! (We figured you were a spy...though your camera was a little large and obtrusive...)

    Thank you, Diane, for writing such a lovely summing-up of our BMFI experience! It was a huge treat for us as filmmakers to have the movie shown at a place like the BMFI, with its smart, sophisticated audience -- and then seeing this great blog post was like the whipped cream on top of the whole experience.

    Stephanie Argy & Alec Boehm