Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book review: "Making Movies"

I first read Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet, when it came out in 1995, and was dazzled (and intimidated) by the complexity of big-time filmmaking. I reread it in 2013 and had the exact same reaction. This is a serious book about filmmaking.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) directed seventy-two movies and TV shows. He is best known for films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007).

Lumet was an actor, appearing on stage in Broadway shows from the age of five. He spent three years with the US Army during World War II, then started directing off-Broadway stage shows after the war, before moving to TV in 1952.

His first movie, 12 Angry Men, was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was also a start of the trend whereby he never won, despite being personally nominated four times. Fourteen of the films he directed were nominated a total of 46 times for Oscars, winning six times. In 2005 the Academy gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award for his "services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture."

Here are some quotes from the book.
I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport—neither of which belonged in a period movie.

Often the last to arrive [at rehearsal] is the writer. He is last because he knows that at this point he is the target. At this moment, anything wrong can only be his fault, since nothing else has happened yet. So he moves quietly to the coffee table, stuffs his mouth full of Danish so he won't have to answer any questions, and tries to become as small as possible.

There are many reasons for accepting a movie. I'm not a believer in waiting for "great" material that will produce a "masterpiece." What's important is that the material involve me personally on some level.

I've done two movies because I needed the money. I've done three because I love to work and couldn't wait any longer.

The truth is that no one knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work.

For anyone who wants to direct but hasn't made a first movie yet, there is no decision to make. Whatever the movie, whatever the auspices, whatever the problems, if there's a chance to direct, take it!

The theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie).

What is the movie about? Work can't begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled.

The script must keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way.

Dialogue is not uncinematic. So many of the movies of the thirties and forties that we adore are constant streams of dialogue.

The point is that here is no war between the visual and the aural. Why not the best of both?

A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behavior as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations.

If the writer has to state the reasons, something's wrong in the way the character has been written.

I like the writer present at rehearsals. Words are critical. And most actors aren't writers, nor are most directors.

I use improvisation as an acting technique, not as a source of dialogue.

Most writers are so used to being slapped around that they're stunned that I want them at rehearsal.

There's a powerful magic about being a writer that I still marvel at.

I want the writer to see the first cut. First cuts of a picture always have to have some time taken out of them. Most writers are able to see repetitions in their own work.

In a sense, a movie is constantly being rewritten. The various contributions of the director and the actors, the music, sound, camera, decor, and editing, are so powerful that the movie is always changing.

Making a movie has always been about telling a story.

In Murder on the Orient Express, I wanted Ingrid Bergman to play the Russian princess. She wanted to play the retarded Swedish maid. I wanted Ingrid Bergman. I let her play the maid. She won an Academy Award.

Just as in life, really talking and listening to one another is very, very difficult. In acting, that's the basis on which everything is built.

Sanford Meisner was one of the best acting teachers of my time. With beginning students, he spent the first month or six weeks getting them to really talk and listen to one another. That's all. It's the great common denominator where different acting styles and techniques meet.

Steven Spielberg said of this book:
"Film would be a better place if every director were required to share with other romancers of film his process. It is a gift to us all that it is Sidney Lumet, one of America's greatest filmmakers, who is sharing his point-of-view."
First posted: 8 April 2013

Sunday, 25 June 2017

How to write a scene in 11 steps

John August wrote a post—How to write a scene—back in 2007.

In February 2013, Ryan Rivard converted the substance of that post into an infographic. Here it is:

The infographic is great, but make sure you read the original post, so you have the context.

First posted: 5 April 2013

10 Lessons on Filmmaking

Filmmaker Magazine has an article this month called 10 Lessons on Filmmaking from Director Ken Loach. For those who don't know, UK-based Ken Loach has directed almost 50 movies and TV shows. He never worked in Hollywood, apparently never wanted to. His latest film, a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, has just had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale.
    Loach is now 76, a good age at which to start passing on acquired wisdom. The following list has drawn fire over item 9, possibly unfairly. I'll leave it to you to judge.

1. Avoid corruption: Find a thrifty team.

I have been lucky. I work with producers who don’t rip people off. And we don’t spend much money, so there are no kinds of silly extravagances. It works mainly because the producers have set things up in a very comfortable way.
   I think that, oddly enough, it helps that we’re not spending huge sums of money. It’s a well-paid industry. Even at our level it’s very well-paid. But I think when the sums are huge then it’s very corrupting. So you just try to do the sensible thing.

2. Appreciate the people around you.

I think everybody respects everybody. You try and give them enough time to do their job, and sometimes it’s tight, but we all share the same discomforts.
   I think valuing people’s contributions is key. You know if you’re valued, and they are. I mean, I work with brilliant people, and take any one of them away and we couldn’t do it. You don’t have to say it to them. It’s implicit in what you do, isn’t it?

3. The best team is built upon loyalty.

I’ve just been very lucky to find good people, and people have been very loyal, and you try to show loyalty back. And then you develop a common attitude so you don’t have to go over the basics again and again because there’s an understanding between you. It’s just common sense.
   It’s such a fragmented industry. I’ve been lucky and have been able to work quite regularly. I think if you can work quite regularly that gives you the confidence to build a team.

4. Cut before you begin. And then cut some more.

You shoot too many scenes that you don’t need. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that people could make. And I made that, sometimes at the outset.
   We try to cut the budget before we start. We cut the script so that you demand less. Maybe there’ll be a scene, one or two scenes in every film that you find you can do without, but you don’t always know that in advance. But that’s part of the art of filmmaking. And then part of the work is to cut the script before you shoot so that you don’t waste time.

5. Find the epic part of even the smallest story.

That’s in the writing, really. I’ve worked with Paul for quite a long time, and the thing about Paul is that he finds the microcosm, which will tell you about the bigger picture. You see something very small, but through it you know the bigger picture. That’s always what you’re looking for, finding a small story, or a relationship, or a situation, and if you tell that truthfully, you say something about the much bigger picture without actually having to have say it. You infer it, and those are all the stories you’re looking for really.

6. The story should feel effortless, no matter how hard it is to convey.

With directing fiction, certainly for our films, the script is very precise. It’s 98%, what you see on the screen is in the script. One or two percent is added, but it should feel as though it’s improvised. It’s like playing Chopin. You should feel the pianist has just sat down at the piano, and he’s just played this amazing piece just from his head, but of course it was written and it should be the same in the film. It should have all the appearance and quality of just happening spontaneously in front of you, and that’s the trick you have to try and pull off.

7. Edit your script with your enemies in mind.

Part of what you consider carefully all the time is what a film is saying, what’s the subtext of the film and what’s the implication of the film. And is it true and can we justify it and is it open to misinterpretation?
   It’s got to be in the script. I found that if there’s a fault in the script, it’s always there at the end. And there have been one or two times where we haven’t got the script quite right, so the faults stay with you, and that’s always the challenge at the beginning.
   The secret to having the proper subtext is working on the script. It’s just asking the questions you know your enemies will ask.

8. The writer/director relationship is sacred.

We talk about the story a lot before Paul starts and then he’ll do a first draft. When we’re doing an outline, we’ll talk at every stage, but he does the writing. And when we’re casting, which is a long process, I always like him to come at different times and be there at the end with Rebecca, and then to come as often as possible to the shoot. Often he’ll see something that I’m missing. So it’s a very congenial relationship. You don’t put pressure on each other; you just enjoy each other’s presence, really. He brings the coffee if there’s nothing else to do.

9. And remember, writing and directing are not one and the same.

If you’re a director, remember you’re not a writer. I think a lot of directors coming in now think they have to be the writer as well, and I think that’s the biggest handicap, you know? If you’re a director, you’re not a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’re probably not a director. Remember the distinction.
   There are not a lot of good director/writers. Usually the script is too thin. It’s not complex enough, and it’s not deep enough. For a writer who directs, it’s usually too dense. They don’t allow it to breathe.
   You need different visions coming in and they’re not the same; they’re complementary. It’s good that there’s another eye on the script and there’s another eye on the directing.

10. Relax.

It’s only a film, you know? Getting up at 6 o’clock on the long days, that’s the biggest challenge. Keeping self-belief is the biggest challenge.
   In the end, if you don’t get it right, you don’t get it right, but you’ll still be there tomorrow to learn your lesson.
   It’s only a film. Don’t take yourself too seriously.


First posted: 1 April 2013

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book review: "Hitchcock"

In 1962, François Truffaut commenced a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, via an interpreter. These interviews occurred intermittently over the next five years. The end result was published in 1967, as a book called Hitchcock, though you will sometimes see it referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Prior to reading this, I didn't know much about François Truffaut, other than Julia Phillips' comments about him in You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which is one of the great reads about Hollywood in the 1970s.)

Steven Spielberg had cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a film Julia Phillips produced. Truffaut and Phillips did not hit it off.

He was an arrogant, famous French film director and I couldn't help but feel that he was fucking with us all the time.
   I was convinced that the well-known-deaf-in-the-left-ear legend (with a hearing aid as a prop, if you please) was a ploy, like not speaking English, to keep the world at bay and for his own private amusement.
   Still I addressed myself to making him feel comfortable, revered, safe. That was my specialty. Also my job. But deep down I knew he was a prick and it was making me defiant. Fuck him. I wanted my own private amusement.
That private amusement took the form of a bet with Spielberg that Truffaut wasn't deaf. She would find out over dinner, where she would be sitting next to him, on his 'deaf' side.
"At some point during dinner I'll whisper his name and we'll see if he turns toward me. If he does he ain't deaf and I win. If he doesn't he is deaf and you win."
Spielberg accepted the bet.
Halfway through dinner I whispered "François" and he turned minutely in my direction. Of course, Steven argued that it was an inconclusive gesture, and he welched on the bet. I know I won because it earned me François's eternal enmity.
Enmity indeed. Truffaut sniped at Phillips throughout the lengthy filming exercise, including telling the Sunday New York Times that she was "incompetent" and "unprofessional."

It has long amused me that François became Julia's true foe. But I'm like that.

The Truffaut who comes through in this book is a serious cinephile, and so well researched that he knew things about Hitchcock's films that Hitchcock didn't know or had forgotten. I came away from the book with a deep respect for his film knowledge and insights.

I was interested to notice that many of the famous Hitchcock quotes that I've read over the years can be found in this book. Whether they are the original source, I cannot say. Here are some quotes from the book.

From François Truffaut:
  • The only two British film-makers whose works have survived the test of time—and space, for that matter—are Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.
  • The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.
  • Clarity is the most important quality in the making of a film.
  • Cardinal rule of cinema: Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer.
  • In real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel. This is especially true of such mundane occasions as dinner and cocktail parties, or of any meeting between casual acquaintances.
  • If we observe any such gathering, it is clear that the words exchanged between the guests are superficial formalities and quite meaningless, whereas the essential is elsewhere; it is by studying their eyes that we can find out what is truly on their minds.
  • Each of (Hitchcock's) pictures features several scenes in which the rule of counterpoint between dialogue and image achieves a dramatic effect by purely visual means.
  • Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire, and envy.
  • Anything connected with fear takes us back to childhood. All of children's literature is linked to sensations and particularly to fear.

From Alfred Hitchcock:
  • A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve.
  • In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.
  • To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle.
  • I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.
  • I hate to introduce a useless character in a story.
  • Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.
  • To insist that the storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately.
  • A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
  • In North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.
  • In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds.
  • A mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • One of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, "We can cover that by a line of dialogue." Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual form.
  • Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense.
  • You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
  • Without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.
  • When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
When asked about his habit of making personal appearances in his movies:
  • It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and a gag. But by now it's a rather troublesome gag, and I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.

Hitchcock is a big book (367 pages). It consists of the recorded dialogue between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, as they discussed every film Hitchcock made, from The Lodger (1926) to Frenzy (1972). After their meetings ended, Hitchcock made one last picture, Family Plot (1976). The book is of most value to directors, though screenwriters will find some elements of interest.

First posted:25 March 2013

Friday, 23 June 2017

Seven tips for surviving the film industry

This month MovieMaker magazine has an article called Hitchhike a Thousand Miles: Oscar nominee John Hawkes gives seven tips for surviving the film industry.

John Hawkes is an actor who has appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows. I don't know how it came about, but he shared the following thoughts about longevity in the film business. What caught my eye was his admonition about "hitchhiking thousands of miles."

As someone who hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles as a skinny long-haired teenager, I instantly understood. Hitchhiking saved me. It showed me there were people, and lives, unlike those of the Housing Commission estate where I grew up. Thoughtful people. Considerate people. Generous people. When you sit with someone, in their car, for hundreds of miles, there is an expectation of conversation. I knew nothing and had nothing to say. So I asked questions. The first interviews I conducted were with mobile strangers and those strangers introduced me to worlds I'd never heard of before.

I don't want to distort the picture: I met some weirdos, too. Paranoids, drunks, and friendly men who wanted to show me a good time, wanted to take me home to bed. There were some women, too, with that same idea.

Like John Hawkes, I no longer recommend it, the times being what they are, but I'm glad hitchhiking was a part of my life.

Now see what else he had to say.

I’m an untrained actor with no formal education in moviemaking. I learned my trade by observing the work of others, reading books about acting and film, and through trial and error on sets and stages.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Trust your gut. Don’t guess what the audience wants. Tell the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

2. All arts connect and inform each other. See theater, dance, music, and visual art; read great books. Be thrilled and inspired beyond your niche.

3. Loaf occasionally.

4. Make a vital life outside of the business. Travel, struggle, get a hobby, study, volunteer—gain perspective. This may indirectly benefit your work, as well. Hitchhiking thousands of miles, though I no longer recommend it, greatly enriched my understanding of people and story.

5. This business will knock you down. When it does, try to get up, dust yourself off, and take another step forward. And try to rejoice in the idea that you’ve found work that you love to do. Most don’t.

6. Be kind. Be brave. Be prepared. Work hard. Have a great sense of humor.

7. William Goldman famously said of the film industry that: “Nobody knows anything.” This may be true. I don’t know for sure.

First posted: 24 March 2013

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Selling a spec script: 1933-2013

Vanity Fair has released the best write-up about the history of movie spec script sales I've ever seen. Written by Margaret Heidenry, the article is titled When the Spec Script was King.
Once derided as “schmucks with Underwoods,” screenwriters saw their stock soar to seven-figure heights with the advent of the frenzied “spec”-script market. That bubble burst in 2008, but will the schmucks rise again?
Most of the information contained in the article is available elsewhere—in interviews or biographies, such as Joe Eszterhas's book Hollywood Animal—but this article can serve as a primer for an era.

I've met so many wannabe screenwriters with dreams of a-million-dollar-sale-just-around-the-corner, people who will never make it, that it's heart-breaking. If you're interested in pursuing a career writing spec scripts, or even hope to sell one, just one, before you die, do yourself a favor and read this article.

First posted: 12 March 2013

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Book review: 'Writing the Romantic Comedy'

The book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit, has been around since 2000. I started reading it several times in the last eighteen months, but always got stuck on page 5, where he talks about structure. He throws up three-act theory, then justifies it with the following words:
"Funny thing about threes. Maybe it's hardwired into our DNA, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.)"
That's absurd and it stopped me cold every time. What about four: the four seasons, the four points of the compass, the four Gospels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or five: the five fingers, five toes, five basic tastes? Or seven: the seven days of the week, seven hills of Rome, seven Wonders of the ancient world? These are no more arbitrary or irrelevant than his two choices.

The sound you could hear about that time was me grinding my teeth, followed by a 'thump' as the book hit the shelves.

What eventually got me past page 5, and my growing prejudice, was a single visit to Billy's blog, Living the Romantic Comedy. There I found a sincere interest in the subject of romcoms and confessions of his real-life struggle with the elements that make up one of humanity's greatest preoccupations. So I returned to his book. The thing that really won me over was his analysis of Annie Hall, but that's another subject. He talks about Theme a lot and that's all good reading.

Here are a few quotes to give you a taste of the book itself.

Romantic comedy protagonists tend to be emotionally incomplete.

Every genre has its subtext. Thrillers are about creating cathartic confrontations with our fears; action adventures are usually enactments of mythic heroism. In romantic comedies, the real subject matter is the power of love.

In a romantic comedy, crisis provokes the protagonist into comprehending the value of love.

What a protagonist learns by falling in love determines the outcome of a romantic comedy.

One could restate the paradigm for a three-act structure in a romantic comedy as follows:
   Conflict:  Love challenges the characters.
   Crisis:  The characters must accept or deny love.
   Resolution:  Love transforms the characters.

There's a common misconception that characters need to be sympathetic. Not necessarily. Godfather Don Corleone is a monster. We don't sympathize with his methods and his murderous morality. But we're fascinated by his power and passion, and we identify with his devotion to his family.

A character who's getting in his own way is a character who has more than one side to him. He's got an inner conflict that's fueling his outer conflicts. He's got, in a word, complexity.

There's one no-no, a cultural bias so powerful that it remains unbroken in our genre: he can't be in it only for the sex.

The only written-in-stone rule that applies to female protagonists: she can't be in it only for the money.

Typical of romantic comedy heroines from the earliest days of the genre: they were women who dominated, or at least held their own with, men whom they pursued.

What's universal comes out of what's most personal.

A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play.

The theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. ... What's it about? ... Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it. ... Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning.

Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth.

A good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted.

The romantic comedy generally breaks the traditional three-act structure into seven essential beats: the setup (a chemical equation), the catalyst (cute meet), the first turning point (a sexy complication), the midpoint (hook), the second turning point (the swivel), the climax (dark moment), and resolution (joyful defeat).

The hidden challenge of every romantic comedy lies in getting its audience to believe that these two people absolutely must end up together.

Romance writers can't shy away from the big emotions their characters inevitably experience. One of the reasons people come to these movies is to share those feelings.

Writing the Romantic Comedy. It's a good book. Recommended.

First posted: 25 February 2013

Friday, 9 June 2017

Script Development Strategies - Linda Aronson

Years ago, Linda Aronson taught a course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). One component of the course was a list of Development Strategies that Linda created to assist students find the best version of their stories. The Development Strategies were incorporated in Linda's book, Screenwriting Updated, and subsequently reproduced widely. In 2010, Linda published an expanded version of the book, called The 21st Century Screenplay. The following is a list gleaned from that book.
    Next time you're about to start formulating a new story, try reading through this list and apply the strategies. Think of it as twenty-five steps to a complete story. I consider the Strategies to be distilled practical commonsense, from a professional writer who has decades of writing-to-a-deadline under her belt. You need a method in order to consistently pump out quality work. I suspect most professional writers do this intuitively. Linda Aronson started with an academic background and couldn't help analyzing her own approach, for the benefit of others.
    If you find this information helpful, buy the book. It is an "atlas" (as Christopher Vogler describes it) of information about screenwriting.

1. Define the task at hand.

2. Brainstorm the best 'real but unusual' remedy.

3. Solve the genre equation.

4. Find non-narrative triggers.

5. Create a simple narrative sentence.

6. Create an advanced narrative sentence.

7. Make sure the disturbance happens soon and involves real change.

8. Distinguish the idea from a story.

9. Differentiate the action line and the relationship line.

10. Create a relationship road.

11. Peg the relationship line to the action.

12. Identify the protagonist.

13. Identify the antagonist.

14. Find out what the plot tells you about characters.

15. Get into character.

16. Create a character arc.

17. Insert a misleading plan.

18. Find the first-act turning point scene (surprise/obstacle).

19. Devise second-act complications via the first-act turning point.

20. Second-act turning point, Part 1: Protagonist's worst possible moment.

21. Second-act turning point, Part 2: Decision to fight back.

22. Check that the relationship line is moving.

23. Find the climax and first-act turning point.

24. Come to a resolution and ending.

25. Use symbolism and myth.

First posted: 24 February 2013

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The making of the shower scene from 'Psycho'

I've been reading Hitchcock, by François Truffaut, which records the substance of a series of interviews between the French director and his English hero. It's an interesting book and loaded with quotable passages. One that seems topical relates to the shower scene in the 1960 movie Psycho.

Here are some quotes from Alfred Hitchcock, relating to Psycho in general and the shower scene in particular:

It's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers.

The construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all around the world to react and become emotional.

The picture cost eight hundred thousand dollars. It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show? I used a complete television unit to shoot it very quickly. The only place where I digressed was when I slowed down the murder scene, the cleaning-up scene, and the other scenes that indicated anything that required time. All of the rest was handled in the same way that they do it in [1950s] television.

You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays—for an audience.

It took us seven days to shoot the [stabbing of Janet Leigh] scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. I used a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in.

And if, like me, you were curious as to who it was who actually does the stabbing in that scene, Truffaut had this to say:

Hitchcock informed me that the attacker was a young woman wearing a wig. He added that the scene was shot twice because, although the only lighting was placed behind the woman, the reverberation of the white bathroom walls was so strong that it revealed her face too clearly. That is why her face was blackened in the second take, so as to create the impression of a dark and unidentifiable silhouette on the screen.
The complete scene runs for just over three minutes. Here it is:

First posted:16 February 2013

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Formulas for hit films

Roger Ebert called Pulp Fiction “the most influential” movie of the 1990s, “so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it—the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.’ ”


Taken from: 

Vanity Fair, Cinema Tarantino: The Making of Pulp Fiction.

This is a long article, but worth the time if you're interested in the history of Quentin Tarantino or the making of Pulp Fiction. It has lots of odd little cinematic and screenwriting tidbits. 

First posted: 15 February 2013

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The old switcheroo

Last year I read a book called The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne, a favourite novelist of mine, but also a screenwriter with over thirty years experience of Hollywood. In 1967, Richard Zanuck gave Dunne "free access" to Twentieth Century Fox for a year, while he researched his book. The result is a wonderfully written description of how the biggest movie studio in town was run. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Hollywood history

One result of reading that book was that I bought a copy of The Devil's Candy, on Dunne's recommendation. This was written by Julie Salamon in 1991 and is the result of Brian De Palma agreeing to allow Salamon unlimited access to the film production of Tom Wolfe's book, The Bonfire of the Vanities. (I recommend both those books, as well.)

Tom Hanks reigns over the Trading floor in Bonfire of the Vanities.
The Devil's Candy exceeds William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade in making the point that, in Hollywood, Nobody Knows Anything. The studio decided that Bonfire, a book about a bunch of unlikeable characters, could be rescued by casting Mr. Likeable himself, Tom Hanks, as the protagonist. Hanks had just become a star, courtesy of Big (1988). De Palma was appointed director, on the back of his success with The Untouchables (1987). Melanie Griffith had just had a big success with Working Girl (1988), so she got to play the mistress role. Bruce Willis had just become a movie star, courtesy of Die Hard (1988), so he was cast in the pivotal role of the alcoholic English journalist. Morgan Freeman had just been nominated for an Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy (1989), so he was cast in the role of the white Jewish judge. Kim Cattrall won the role of the wife because she looked the part.

With a cast like that, what could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything. The film cost almost $50million, but was a critical and commercial flop, taking about $15million at the box office.

Richard Gere talks business on his private jet in Arbitrage.

So what, I hear you ask. Well, last night I watched Arbitrage (2012), in which Richard Gere plays a rich Wall Street dude, with a wife and a mistress, who needs a particular deal, worth hundreds of millions, to go through in order to save his financial bacon. While sweating on the deal, he is involved in a car accident with his mistress. She dies and Gere tries to cover his tracks, but falls under the suspicion of a persistent cop.

And I thought to myself, here it is, the old switcheroo! Bonfire of the Vanities as a thriller, rather than a comedy. In Bonfire, Tom Hanks plays a rich Wall Street dude, with a wife and a mistress, who needs a particular deal, worth hundreds of millions, to go through in order to save his financial bacon. While sweating on the deal, he is involved in a car accident with his mistress. A local citizen is injured and Hanks tries to cover his tracks, but falls under the suspicion of a persistent cop.

The old switcheroo, as a device for creating story ideas, has been around a long time. Take a story you understand and feel comfortable with, and rearrange the elements in some way, then write your own version. Turn a comedy into a thriller. Move the country story into the city. Or the other way round. Make the white hero black, or turn the male protagonist into a woman. There are endless examples.

Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.
The first time I noticed the technique was with Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Two close friends, who ride motorcycles (rather than horses), sense that their time has just about passed. They rob an armoured car in order to save a friend's business, find themselves pursued by an implacable superposse, jump off a twenty story building into a swimming pool (rather than off a cliff into a river), and finish up in a shootout which has a happy ending, in contrast to the original: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

One film which makes no effort to hide its origins is Throw Momma From the Train (1987). Not only is it modeled on Strangers on a Train (1951), with the story reversed from a thriller to a comedy, but it references the film and includes footage of it.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker meet over a book in Strangers on a Train.
Danny De Vito and Billy Crystal both write books in Throw Momma from the Train.
There are endless examples of the old switcheroo, from TV as well as the movies.

If the opposition has The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), a successful TV show about dumb country folk moving in amongst the rich people in Los Angeles, you could always do a switcheroo and write a show where rich people move from Manhattan to live amongst the dumb country people. You could call it Green Acres (1965-1971).

The old switcheroo, you can use it, too. 

Oh, and don't be afraid to borrow from American Gothic, the most famous American painting of the twentieth century, as the source for your cover graphic.

First posted: 13 February 2013

Monday, 5 June 2017

"First Step In Writing A Screenplay," Richard Walter

Richard Walter is an author, educator, screenwriter, commentator, consultant and chairman of the University of California, Los Angeles graduate program in screenwriting.

He has written numerous feature assignments for the major studios and has sold material to all three networks. He has also written many informational, educational, and corporate films. Walter lectures on screenwriting throughout the world, and has toured The People’s Republic of China, the Middle East, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico, Spain, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Toronto. He also lectures all over the United States.

Here he is talking about where ideas come from.

First posted: 10 February 2013

Sunday, 4 June 2017

What's that gun?

If they get caught in an argument about which actor starred in what film, most people go to IMDb, the Internet Movie Database.

But if they get caught in an argument about which gun was used in what movie, where should they go? The answer, as I learned recently, is the Internet Movie Firearms Database (IMFDb).

The first film I looked up was Jackie Brown, with Samuel L. Jackson playing Ordell Robbie, the gun dealer with the problem of repatriating his $500,000 in cash.

Australians, generally, don't own guns. I've never owned one. Apart from firing a .22 on a farm way back when I was a kid, I only ever handled firearms when I was working as a civilian for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in the late 1990s. Which is part of the appeal of Jackie Brown for me.

Chick Cindy presents a Steyr AUG on video in Jackie Brown,
as Sammy Jackson explains his gun business to Robert De Niro.
The ADF uses a modified version of the Steyr AUG, called the F88 Austeyr. I found it light, easy to use and remarkably accurate (considering I'm blind as a bat without glasses). The built-in telescopic sight helped.

The only other weapon I fired that day was a Browning 9mm handgun, the Mark III, which is the general issue pistol for the ADF. The commercial version of that gun appears in dozens of movies, most notably The Usual Suspects, where almost everyone takes a turn at firing one.

In a memorable moment in The Usual Suspects, Stephen Baldwin fires two Browning Mark IIIs.
I don't want to own a gun, but that day at the RAAF firing range at Edinburgh Air Force Base, I discovered they can be fun. Many Australians crticise Americans for their failure to ban guns, as Australia did after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, but Australia has never had a gun culture. Our equivalent problem is alcohol. Just watch those same people squirm if someone tries to extend the system of prohibition already in place in the Northern Territory.

First posted:  6 February 2013

Friday, 2 June 2017

Tricks of the Trade, by Nick Kazan

Nick Kazan has had thirty years experience in the business of screenwriting. He wrote Frances, At Close Range, Patty Hearst, Reversal of Fortune, Mobsters, among others, and adapted the Roald Dahl classic, Matilda, with his wife. 

In this video he offers insight into how he started as a screenwriter, his particular approach to the craft, and what it takes to develop screenwriting muscles.

First posted: 3 February 2013

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Truth About Independent Filmmaking

One thing I don't hear a lot of in the world of filmmaking is... the truth. The blunt truth. 

I hear a lot of sugar-coating, evasion, half-truth, prevarication, equivocation, and polite misrepresentation. I've largely despaired of giving feedback on screenplays. It's rare that a writer wants to hear what I truly think. They expect me to be their mother and tell them they're wonderful. Usually the worse the screenplay, the higher the unreal expectations. The more the loud protestation that they want to hear the truth, the greater the injury when it arrives. So I was delighted to read the following simple list published last year by Elliot Grove of Raindance: 10 Dirty Secrets of Independent Film

It put me in mind of the comment made by Kris Young, at UCLA, about teaching wannabe screenwriters:
Teaching newcomers to screenwriting, I try not to dwell too much on the negative aspects. I guess it’s like telling new soldiers, You’re all gonna get killed.”   
There's nothing new here, nothing that Elliot hasn't already said in a bunch of other places, but it did me good to hear it again. So, make sure you've added Raindance to your list of blogs, get yourself a cup of coffee, and luxuriate in a short sharp dose of the truth. 

1. There is no such thing as independent film

The film industry is all run by the conglomerates and studios who hatch small boutique companies to trade on the name ‘independent’. These production companies are run by the same moguls as their bigger budget Hollywood counterparts. In this corporate realm, moguls offer actors scale work on the promise that the cool films and directors they work with will enhance their careers. The producers of these lower budget films are offered elusive back end deals based on the success of the distribution process. Of course any profit is gobbled up by expenses.

2. It’s who you know, not what you know.

A good political mind is a far better asset to a budding filmmaker than anything else. Get really good at building relationships with the people that will matter to your career; distributors, sales agents and journalists. While you are at it, find out who the hot new PR’s are, and budget their fees into your monthly budget.

3. Casting counts.

Forget talent. Low budget films are bought and sold depending on the cast. Develop your relationships with new and established talent. Prove to them that you are the ‘Next Hot Thing.’ Demonstrate your skills working with actors by taking gigs in fringe theatre and by directing award winning short films. 

    If pursuing talent is not your game, remember that you can always play the genre card and make either a horror or science fiction movie, where the concepts are generally so strong you won’t need cast.

4. Originality is shunned.

The film industry is very conservative. Remember that your original idea might just terrify a studio executive at a production or distribution company. Find the basic message of your movie and learn how to tone it down so the suits can swallow it. If you want to slip in some controversy, great, but don’t flag this during the pitch or you won’t get through the front door.

5. Want to get into a film festival

All festivals get thousands of submissions. And who are you? You are unknown, untried and untested. The major festivals rely on a handful of their trusted advisers to recommend the films that will make them look good and guarantee good press and box office. It is these people you need to get to know and schmooze. It’s a fact of life. It’s the way it is. Develop a strategy for dealing with it.

6. Awards are meaningless.

We’ve had filmmakers in the past say they have won an award at Raindance. When confronted with the reality of the fact they didn’t win an award at Raindance, they say things like ‘But you sent me an invoice for the submission fees. I thought that was an award.’ Still, an award with the olive branches on the poster for your film give it pedigree.

7. No one cares about orphans.

Until you get a mentor or champion for your film, no one is going to care about you or your film. Until you get such a person, your film is an orphan. Despite what they say, no one in the industry gives a toss about orphans. There are so many of them. Don’t you be one.

8. Looks count.

The trick is to give your film a look, a style and presence that makes it stand out from all the other newbies clamouring for attention.

9. The industry loves new talent.

Oh no they don’t. The industry is petrified by new talent. Everyone inside the film industry is worried that someone smarter, brighter, more capable, younger (and cheaper!) will come along and snatch their job. The film industry shuns new talent.

10. The Truth.

There is no such thing as the film industry. It is a total misnomer to describe a collective of a dozen or more industries loosely linked by film. There are the camera manufacturers, the equipment rental houses, the labs and post-production suites, the unions and guilds, the lawyers and accountants, the distributors and exhibitors (both on and off line) and, of course, the film festivals. None of these sub industries trust or even like each other. And they all pretty much hate filmmakers. 

Everyone in the film industry lies. They lie about what they really think about your work. They lie about when they are going to pay you. They lie about you to their friends and colleagues. It is a pretty unpleasant and nasty business. 

How do you survive? By being honourable and truthful. Everyone, even the crusty owner of a lab, will respect that. And respect gets you an awful long way in the film industry.