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The muse is not a variable in the creation of Carrots and Onions. When engineer Rick Freeman and physicist Bob Nolty decided to make their movie, they studied filmdom’s successes and failures so they could map the shortest distance from concept to result. “We made a romantic comedy,” explains Freeman, “because it takes the least amount of talent.” Nolty adds, “If you make a mediocre movie, it’s better to have a happy ending. If you’re Coppola, fine, go for the sad ending, but we just want people to have fun.” For their “character-driven” low-budget movie, they chose as a subject the love lives of an inexperienced scientist named Bob and a bed-hopping commitmentphobe named Rick.
As they built their script, Freeman and Nolty monitored its symmetry with the formidable Nolty Diagram. This colorless storyboard fills five computer-generated pages with ovals representing each scene arrayed on and between lines representing the 10 main speaking characters. Dots on the horizontal character lines are connected by solid or dotted vertical lines indicating participation in a particular scene. There’s shading for certain motifs and arrows denoting sections devoted to the “male perspective” and the “female perspective.” The thing looks like flow-charted sheet musicthe score to a geek symphony.
The two wrote and diagrammed together for about a year long-distance while Nolty worked on his physics Ph.D. at Caltech and Freeman finished up a two-year fellowship here at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). When the script was in acceptable shape, Freeman called Nolty east to make the movie. Nolty moved into Freeman’s Georgetown apartment in March 1996; they finished writing, bought a bunch of digital video equipment, and assembled a crew and cast (including an idealized “Bob” and “Rick”) who worked for profit points rather than money. The two filmed from December to June 23 and later this summer will begin editing the 65 hours of tape they’ve shot.
Nolty, 35, met Freeman, 33, when they were roommates at “a little development camp in Alabama” in the summer of 1988. It was called Servants in Faith and Technology and “trained Americans who shared a religious/spiritual background” in humane international development, says Freeman. Both have stayed involved in development, science policy in particular, since then. Immediately after Carrots wrapped, Nolty left for Tanzania and Uganda to study the effects of refugee camps on local economies, as part of his USAID fellowship.
Both fellows were also evangelical fundamentalists for years, Freeman during high school and college in Philadelphia. After Alabama, Freeman spent a year in a Bolivian jungle setting up a mill to produce affordable cement from rice husks. In 1989, he took up “global Eastern religion” when he went to UCLA to get his Ph.D. in engineering. Nolty was an undergraduate at Texas Tech when he got the call from a traveling inspirational speaker; he now attends a Mennonite church. He’s been working on his doctorate since 1988, not as a career move but “to learn a lot of physics, understand some deep stuff.”
It’s the scientists more than the worshipers who talk about movies. In high school, Nolty was struck by a shot in I Wanna Hold Your Handin a haircut scene, the cranking of a barber chair is heard before the head rises into the frame. “That was when I first realized that the script doesn’t write itself, that there was somebody back there making all the decisions. And then I started to watch movies that way, and I wanted to see if I could do that,” he recalls. Freeman says filmmaking scratches the same itch for him as graduate school: “I’m attracted to environments that are obsessive, self-absorbing, all-encompassing….I like the complexity.” He marvels at the power of directors: “Look at all the light they’re controlling.”
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Nolty and Freeman decided early on that Carrots and Onions would be built around an opera. “We didn’t know anything about opera, but we figured that would provide a structure,” says Freeman. He then bought several books on opera (now shelved in their apartment with about 30 on filmmaking) and chose Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. (“It was in English,” Freeman points out.) The 1689 musical is no laff riotAeneas is called by a spirit disguised as a god to establish a new Troy, and Dido kills herselfso it’s used sparingly as a symbolic device. In C&O, a character named Vanessa, safe in her yuppie life with husband Dennis (they’re also based on real people), weathers an identity crisis that vaguely mirrors Aeneas’ dilemma of fate and duty at war with the heart’s desire. Bob and Rick’s quests for better love relationships are cast in terms of Aeneas, too: Bob initially believes his fate is not to reproduce (he’s a genetics professor), while Rick’s fate is to switch girlfriends every few months.
The catalyst is June, who goads Vanessa into (temporarily) leaving Dennis, sort of befriends Rick during their second-act fling, and ends up in fulfilling, sexual love with Bob. Rick’s happy ending is less clear, an open-ended reconciliation with an old girlfriend, but “the heart” wins out all around, and Rick and Bob correct their deficiencies by becoming more alike. The title comes from a speech by Rick’s wise old butcher, Rosie, who wants Rick to settle down and lectures him that a stew of carrots and onions “takes time. Then they start to grow on each otherhe adds to the onion; the onion, she makes the carrot strong.”
“Bob is more like the Bob character. Rick was a little harder to read, a little more complex,” says the mononymic Dani, who plays June. Freeman is an odd mix: The babe-magnet charm of his alter ego coexists in real life with the didacticism of the engineer and the zealousness of the teenage soul-saver. He flirts efficientlyit’s a tool employed in directing people, which he does on the set and off. “When we first started,” Nolty recalls, “Rick would be telling the actors how they should move their joints.” Freeman advises me frequently on how to write my story, punctuating the direction with a hand on my arm or my leg.
Nolty, who briefly considered playing Bob, is Central Casting’s answer to a call for computer weenies. Though no actual pocket protector adorns his short-sleeve shirts, the spirit of one is invoked in one moment of marvelous unselfconsciousness. During dinner, he is listening intently, head cocked, as Freeman talks. Suddenly, Nolty jerks his empty fork to his face, punches his sliding glasses up with its tines, and goes back to his pasta without missing a beat. (Though I thrill to the brazen nerdiness of the gesture, I am haunted throughout the meal by the possibility of a forehead-puncturing miss.)
Nolty and Freeman’s arsenal of movie equipment is a techie’s wet dream. Director of photography Scott Graham says he was lured to the project in part by the chance to use the pair’s Sony VX 1000, “a digital camera that shoots on digital tape, a brand-new technology.” Nolty and Freeman also picked up $10,000 worth of editing equipmenta Pentium 200 MMX with a digital video interface card. Freeman says, “We can edit the movie on a PC, so we’ll have no postproduction costs.”
Though movies are increasingly shot and edited on video, the two say Carrots will be the first digitally made movie to premiere on the Internetin early 1998, they hope. Freeman says such a premiere will: “one, generate hype and, two, provide proof of concept of an all-digital moviemaking cycle.” He sketches the state of the art: “Now it would take three months to download our movie, which will be about 20 gigabytes of data….But as the bandwidth of cable increases, broadcasting movies on the Internet will become much more common. We’d like to get there first.” He believes independent filmmakers whose movies are not picked up by film studios or TV will eventually be able to recoup some costs over the Net: “People could charge a quarter or 50 cents to show their movie….It would work sort of like satellite dishes.”
Although the pair would love to see Carrots go the Brothers McMullen route, they know the chances aren’t great, and the Internet would, if nothing else, get their movie seen. Transferring the edited print to film will cost another $10,000. Freeman says, “We’ll send it out to festivals, and if a good festival bites on it, maybe we’ll come up with the money ourselves.” They have spent about $30,000 so far, which came mostly from savings and Freeman’s indulgent grandmother.
Good fences generally make good collaborators; even the symbiotic Coen brothers play the distinct roles of director and producer. So the fact that Nolty and Freeman still clearly enjoy each other’s company after 15 months of co-writing, -directing, and -habitating is rather amazing. I was an extra for two scenes of Carrots and saw them work together, directing actors and crew, watching the monitor, and making the hundreds of decisions that must be made instantly on a set. Yet I never saw them disagree. Tom Tomlinson, who plays Bob, reports that “every once in a while, they’d contradict each other, but it was always resolved really well.” I surmised that there was some unspoken acknowledgment of where the buck stopped, but none of the actors or Graham could (or would) say if one partner had the final say. Freeman recalls one on-set fight “over something totally stupid, how far open the curtains should be.” Nolty generously confesses, “I was feeling disempowered that night.”
Given this extraordinary collaboration and a strong nine-year friendship, it’s surprising that in the movie Bob and Rick are not old friends, but rather meet early in the film, quickly size each other up, and agree to a mutual challenge to create the type of relationships with women that have eluded them. The vehicle for both these journeys is the June character. “That was our real breakthrough,” Nolty says. “We needed a girlfriend for Rick to show how the Rick character was with women, and…then one night we realized it could be the same woman that Bob is refusing to get involved with. And that’s when things tightened up and came together.”
Rick and the former girlfriend end up friends but not necessarily dating. Freeman says, “That was Bob’s good judgment; I wanted to get them back in bed together, but Bob said they should end up as friends, so Rick has learned his lesson.” Nolty explains, “Rick has learned how to relate to a woman on a whole level, not just around the exciting sexual stuff.”
Nolty and Freeman insist that they are
not “Bob” and “Rick,” but the lines separating the filmmakers from their characters keep blurring in conversation. When asked why he summoned Nolty from California instead of making the movie himself, Freeman shrugs: “Rick needs Bob, and Bob needs Rick. That’s the whole story.”CP
The Carrots and Onions home page can be reached at www.cco.caltech.edu/-nolty/film.