Wednesday 28 October 2015

Ten lessons from Terry Gilliam

Back in December 2011, in Filmmaker magazine, published the following gentle wisdom about filmmaking by Terry Gilliam, member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and the legendary writer/director of Life of Brian, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

This list is a mixture of answers to interview questions, and comments made during a lecture.

1. Growing up is for losers.
As a child, I always drew funny creatures, funny characters. But I think the trick is not to grow up, not to learn to be an adult. And if you can maintain the kind of imagination you all had when you were babies, you would all be wonderful filmmakers. But the world tries to make you grow up, to stop imagining, stop fantasizing, stop playing in your mind. And I’ve worked hard to not let the world educate me. 

2. Film school is for fools.
Live and learn how to make films. I didn’t go to film school. I just watched movies in the cinemas. And probably my greater education was actually making films, so that’s all I would ever say: watch movies, get a camera, make a movie. And if you do it enough times, eventually you start learning how films are made. 

3. Auteurism is out. Fil-teurism is in.
Being an auteur is what we all dreamed of being, as far [back] as the films of the late ‘50s and ‘60s, when the idea of the auteur filmmaker arrived on the planet. And people kept using that term, and they do with my movies because I suppose they are very individual and they give me all the credit, so they say I’m an auteur. And I say no, the reality is I’m a ‘fil-teur.’ I know what I’m trying to make but I have a lot of people who are around me who are my friends and don’t take orders and don’t listen to me, but who have individual ideas. And when they come up with a good idea, if it’s one that fits what I’m trying to do, I use it. So the end film is a collaboration of a lot of people, and I’m the filter who decides what goes in and what stays out.

4. Put your ideas in a drawer. Take them out as needed.
I do have a drawer in my desk with all the ideas that I have and that I scribbled out. I put them in there and some day I use them. At the beginning of a new film, I often go in that drawer and look at everything I’ve done and see if there are some ideas that might apply to what I’m doing. But things grow, so I just start with a sketch and then refine it. And you do it with other people’s ideas coming in. That’s the fun part. 

5. All you’ve really got in life is story.
I think the important thing is stay true to what you believe. I mean it’s much more important to make your mistakes than somebody else’s mistakes. Like too many other filmmakers have compromised because somebody advised them [that] if you change this, the film will be more successful commercially. And then the film isn’t successful commercially, and these people get so depressed and destroyed because they didn’t ever finish making their film the way they intended it. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. And you’ve got to be willing to take the consequences of whatever it is. If you succeed, fantastic. If you fail, you might have to get a proper job.

6. Command the audience with your lens.
I keep wanting to see more of the world always. When I’m looking through the camera, when we’re setting up a scene, I don’t feel like I’m in the scene. And the wide angle lens, because we see so much, it seems to wrap around me a little bit. I also like the fact that with long lenses, the director controls the audience much more because you show the audience only exactly what you want. Everything else can be out of focus. And I like it to be a little bit more vague so the audience has to be aware of the environment as well as what I want them to look at. I don’t want to really separate the character from the world that it’s in. So the world is as important, and the rooms and everything, as the character sometimes. 

7. Nothing can defeat a director who is one with his actors.
I think the key is to make sure that the cast, especially if they’re big Hollywood superstars, likes the movie. My first film in Hollywood was The Fischer King, and Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges are playing the two leads. And I knew as long as Robin, Jeff and I were united, there was no way the studio could break it, and the film would go out. Same way with Twelve Monkeys. Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and I were one. In both instances those films went very smoothly.

8. Surround yourself with improvisers.
I like the actor to surprise me all the time because the problem when you’re making a film, if you’ve written it and you’re directing it, you’ve been with it so long, it becomes a bit rigid. It can become mechanical when you’re shooting because you’re just trying to do exactly what you were thinking about for the last year. And what’s wonderful is when the actors come in and they do something that’s completely surprising, and suddenly every day becomes fresh. And it makes me stay awake. 

9. Directing is not for the faint-of-heart. Or the sane.
What I love about Don Quixote is that he keeps misinterpreting the world. He thinks the world is either worse or better or whatever. He gets it wrong every time. But in the end he has these heroic, epic moments, and he seems to be unstoppable. He just goes on and on and on. I think it’s a great example for people, especially in film, in how to get through life, because film can often be incredibly disappointing. What I like about the Don Quixote documentary is that so many other filmmakers when they saw that, they started telling me their stories of equally horrible disasters. It’s a very difficult business. [Lost in La Mancha] should discourage anyone who is not willing to live in a world where disasters like that occur. Don’t make films if you’re not going to be able to deal with things like that. I’m always working on it and one day it will happen. It’s changed me. If you’re going to make a film about Don Quixote, you’ve got to be as mad as Don Quixote, so the nature is helping me go crazy.

10. Be an enlightened despot.
I expect the actors to really be totally committed to the film and to their character and forget about who they are. Get rid of your vanity. Just be whatever the character demands. I think it’s horrible when I hear stories of actors coming and they bring their own makeup people and their hairdresser. Wait a minute, what’s going on here? The power is in the wrong hands. And if you let the power go to the actor, then you’re not directing the movie. And the actor is not thinking about the entire movie. Only the director is thinking about the entire movie. I don’t ever want to be the guy that is saying, “this is the only way that it can be done.” I don’t want to be a dictator. That’s not interesting. It’s interesting if you can have a dialogue going all the time and trying to all agree to find what is the best way for this film to go. 

First posted: 31 January 2012

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Audiences and happiness

The originator of the hottest theory in Hollywood today is Lindsay Doran.

Who's that? you ask.

Production executive on This Is Spinal Tap and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Executive producer of The Firm, Sense and Sensibility, Sabrina, Nanny McPhee, and Stranger Than Fiction. President of United Artists Pictures. And, these days, an independent producer.

She comes from a Hollywood family. Her father was a studio executive for nearly 50 years, who worked on films like Sunset Blvd. Her mother typed scripts for Preston Sturgess. Her brother was the publicist on 2001: A Space Odyssey. She says she "grew up listening to people talk about story. There was always the sense that the story was the thing that mattered, and that was always the thing I loved most."

After reading the book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, by Martin E. P. Seligman, she began watching films with one eye on what Dr. Seligman calls the five essential elements of well-being”: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. 

She analyzed critically-acclaimed movies on the American Film Institute’s favorites lists and discovered that these five factors were embedded in films as far-flung as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (characters who displayed positive emotions throughout), The Godfather (characters fully engaged in what they’re doing throughout) and The Karate Kid (a character completely focused on accomplishment).

She says, “It’s no surprise that American movies specialize in stories of accomplishment. When Jennifer Grey finally dares to make the scary leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, when the Karate Kid performs the impossible kick that wipes out his opponent, or when King George VI gets through his wartime speech without stammering — those accomplishments are among the great pleasures of cinema.”

But when Lindsay Doran consulted a veteran market researcher about the five elements of well-being, he told her that audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory, but the moment afterwards, when the winner shares that victory with someone they love.

Rewind the concluding scenes of these “accomplishment” films: Jennifer Grey leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze at the end of Dirty Dancing, and after that she reconciles with her father. Jaden Smith performs that impossible kick at the end of The Karate Kid, but afterward makes peace with his opponent and shares the moment with his mother and trainer. Colin Firth conquers his stammer at the end of The King’s Speech, and then shares his victory with his wife, daughters and the crowds cheering outside the palace. The film closes with a title card that reads that the king and his speech therapist remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Some of the most elevating movies are about people desperate to achieve something that they do not get to achieve. (George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t get to travel the world, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t win an acquittal for his client.) Many of the greatest romances (Roman Holiday, Casablanca) are about lovers who can’t or don’t remain together. And in many movies, accomplishment is accompanied by incalculable loss. Obi-Wan dies, Dumbledore dies, Gandalf dies, 1,500 passengers on the Titanic die, thousands of Pandorans die. The protagonist may be happy at the end, but that happiness is mingled with a sense of loss.

What this suggested to Lindsay Doran is that “the accomplishment the audience values most is not when the heroine saves the day or the hero defeats his opponent. The accomplishment the audience values most is resilience.”

The thing that makes a film memorable, and might make people go back to see it a second time, might not be winning. It might be not winning, but finding something deeper, something that means more than victory. An ending in which a character survives loss might be the more inspiring, the more commercial, way to end a movie.

Gender differences
Lindsay Doran says that relationship movies are gender-specific. In movies aimed at men and boys, there is the goal, the thing the hero is trying to accomplish. Then there’s the relationship, usually with a woman, child, friend or father. Usually at the end the hero realizes the relationship is more important than the accomplishment. In most movies geared toward women, the relationship is the accomplishment. 
“Some would say that this is patronizing to women,” Ms. Doran said, but she saw it differently: “Maybe it just means that women have figured it out.”

Her conclusion: Positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings; their characters’ personal relationships trump personal achievements; and male and female viewers differ in how they define a character’s accomplishments.
See: Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings, by Carrie Rickey, New York Times. 
        Interview with Lindsay Doran, by Melissa Silverstein,  Huffington Post.

First posted:  17 January 2012

Sunday 18 October 2015

'Dandelion' and 'Daisy Chain'

Here are a couple of short films created to encourage children and parents to discuss the issue of bullying. Dandelion is an original story written and directed by Galvin Scott Davis and produced by Digital Agency Protein One. It does not offer a solution, as bullying comes in many forms, yet Benjamin's story communicates the importance of keeping your confidence when those around you aim to destroy it.

The second film in the series, also written and directed by Galvin Scott Davis, is narrated by Kate Winslet. This beautiful anti-bullying tale follows Buttercup Bree and her tale of magical Daisy Chains.

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Challenger

Good to see that Tran Quoc Bao has been busy. He's been in Vietnam editing a comedy called Jackpot, which is now the official submission from Vietnam to the 2016 Oscars. The film has its US premiere at the Asian World Film Festival in L.A. Here's the trailer:

Meanwhile, Bao has also been working on a full-length feature for which he directed the following prequel, an eight minute film called The Challenger. It stars Andy Le and Ken Quitugua.
A young Kung Fu fighter, eager to make a name for himself, challenges his hero in an underground match.
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Wednesday 14 October 2015

Five openings to avoid like the plague

I like lists and here's another from the lovely Lucy V. Hay of Write Here, Right Now. A list of five clich├ęd, bad or just plain dull openers.

What does she mean by "opener"? Not the entire first page, just the first image on the the first page. This should give a reader a sense of the tone of the story. Don't be vague or distracting. You have one shot at this, so make it count. In particular, DON'T trot out one of these:
5. The mirror. So... we have a FACE in a MIRROR. It's your main character, considering their own REFLECTION! Nice! It gives us the impression they have some kind of problem and aren't shallow Hollywood-type characters. Right?? Um, no. It's just boring. Particularly seen with female characters and dramas.

4. The windscreen wipers. The windscreen wipers, going full pelt as rain comes down might be atmospheric, but it's huuuuugely overdone in supernatural thrillers and horror. And weirdly, these wipers/rain are rarely connected to the problem that comes next - ie. an accident that propels the characters into the conflict, so the reader is left wondering: "Why start here with THIS image?"

3. Walking. This one - walking feet, usually on a pavement - can turn up in ANY genre. So your character's walking down the street. Yeah man: this is one cool dude. He's waaaaaaallking! Note to self writers: walking down the street gives the reader very little clue *about* your character. REALLY. Yes, that includes if he's meandering, striding, ambling, WHATEVER. Please stop it! Introduce us to your character doing something INTERESTING. If that *includes1* walking, then great, but don't make walking the FOCUS 'cos it's DULL.

2. Alarm clocks. So here we go... Tick, tick, BOOM: alarm goes and character's hand appears, slamming the alarm. We then proceed to see said character get ready for the day. OMG REALLY?? This has been around for yeeeeeeeeears and though it *is* receding at last, it still pops up with enough annoying regularity to make me want to stab myself in the leg with a fork. The biggest offender here is comedy, but the alarm clock *could* turn up as a first image in just about ANY genre, particularly spec TV pilots.

1. Blackness. This has popped up in earnest in the last two to three years that I've noticed. Basically we start with a BLACK SCREEN. That's right! No first image AT ALL. Usually there is a voice-over the top, sometimes a sound effect, sometimes both. And what's wrong with that? Nothing really - it *could* be okay, but its main issue is its ubiquity. It is EVERYWHERE: spec TV pilots, features, shorts, you name it. 
Okay, there's still time to rewrite that opening. What would make for an interesting image... ?

First posted:  5 January 2012

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Book review: "Invisible Ink"

I travel on Adelaide buses a lot. Some trips take up to an hour, and I always have a book with me, so as not to waste the time. In the middle of last year, I went to the CBD for a bit of shopping, bought half a dozen cheap DVDs from a store which was closing down, then caught the bus home again. 
It was only when I was organising our lunch that I realised I'd left the DVDs on the bus. It wasn't the prospect of lunch that distracted me, it was the book I'd been reading. Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald. And, no, it's not about spies.

Invisible Ink is a riveting read about all the things that make writing great, especially theme. I'd had trouble grasping the notion of theme. Friends told me that the theme of a movie was something that's perfectly obvious to everyone, except the people making the movie. This was always said with a snigger, implying that the concept was bogus, an exercise for intellectual poseurs. Not something I need bother with. But I was curious.

When I heard about Invisible Ink, I snapped it up. And once I got my hands on it, I couldn't put the book down.

The term "visible ink" refers to writing that is readily "seen" by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.
   But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller's point is also writing.
   These are all forms of "invisible ink," so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.
   ... (It) is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it. If you learn to use it, your work will feel polished, professional, and it will have a profound impact on your audience.
White Face
The question many people will be asking about now is, does this guy have a track record? Yes, he does. Way back in 1993 he was a production assistant on Sleepless in Seattle. Since then, Brian has become a consultant to Pixar, Disney and George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. He also wrote and directed a 14 minute film called White Face (2001), an award-winning short film which has been shown all over the USA. [The screenplay for the film is included in the book.]  By common consent, it's one of the great short films. (I've ordered my copy, but haven't seen it yet. The screenplay is excellent.)

The privilege of reading this book was worth the loss of a few DVDs. It is the best book of its type I've found in many years of searching. In my opinion, the chapters on "The myth of genre" and "The use of clones" alone make the price of the book worthwhile.

Brian McDonald understands writer insecurity, too.
One of the things that hangs us all up when writing is that we feel we need to make it more complicated. We feel that this will make it better, but it never does. It just makes it muddy.
The following sentences (two sentences, mind you) are from Stewart Stern, the writer of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Eerily and precisely to the point, they enroll us without threat, not just because they're entertaining in themselves, but because his examples let us hold out our aprons safely to all the trees he plucks them from as we walk with him on the guided tour of his wonderful varied orchardhere Aesop, there nursery rhymes, farther on fairy tales, comic books, cartoons, the Bible, the theater, anthropological discoveries, barroom jokes, Billy Wilder, Shakespeare, Spielberg, Pixar, The Wizard of Oz, ancient African proverbs, and two irreplaceables, Joe Guppy, and Matt Smith. With Invisible Ink Brian McDonald has written us a book to keep and heed forever because through the simple, graceful, graspable, original wisdom of it, we might just save our screenwriting lives.
If there's one disappointing aspect, it's that the book has no index. That irritates me. In this day and age (cue rant by grumpy old timer...)

And now, here's Brian McDonald chatting with Warren Etheredge, in The High Bar. Shot at The Chapel Bar (Seattle), it runs for 38 minutes and is worth watching. Make the time. You'll enjoy this, as well as learn something.

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First posted: 13 January 2012