Wednesday 30 November 2016

6 Filmmaking Tips - Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson is an American writer and director. He won a Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival with his debut feature, Brick, and has received a lot of media attention recently over his latest film, Looper.

In what has been described as "a bit of free film school," here are some tips provided by a man who built his own time machine.

Read Great Stuff That Has Nothing to Do With Anything You’re Writing

I’m in that phase right now where I’m fishing for the next idea, so this is the first tip I thought of. But it’s applicable at all points in the process, I think. When I’m looking for inspiration, in addition to looking at sources that line up with my idea, I try to cast my net wide and into weird waters. If you’re working on a western, read a biography of Einstein, or, if you’re working on a horror movie, dig into some Jung, or a history of the French revolution, or some Tolstoy short stories. Anything that sparks your interest, and as far afield from your own idea as possible. Because when you’re reading a book that has nothing to do with your movie, and you hit that one paragraph that somehow miraculously has everything to do with your movie, it’s like striking gold. That’s the kind of unique inspiration that can really start things up.


One of the things I’ve tried to get better at in the whole process is listening.  I grew up making short films with friends, and coming into features I was used to controlling every aspect of the process, story boarding everything, and dictating the movie I had in my head. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think you need a movie in your head, and having a clear idea of how that movie will work and what to do to get it there is obviously essential. But I’m also learning that my most important job on set is to be present, to be in the moment, and, if something new presents itself, to be open to that. That sounds really obvious I guess, but I’m a slow learner. So I do my storyboards, I have my plan. But I also show up ready to listen, watch and observe, and to react.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in Brick (2005)

Make As Many Movies As Possible

When I graduated high school, I had made about 80 short movies, and 78 of them were unwatchably horrible. Dumb skits with friends, action scenes with GI Joe figurines, fart jokes and tv parodies and half assed videos on “Hamlet” and “Brave New World,” to get out of writing book reports. Nothing that will ever see the light of day. But in making those 80 dumb videos, I learned more than I did in four years of film school.
    I was getting used to having a camera in my hands, finding shots, and forming a (crude) visual language. I was goofing around with editing, with sound, putting things up against each other, and testing how malleable everything was. Doing a bunch of it, even if it was bad, was the key to it becoming something I could start refining. The camera in my iPhone is a million times better than the Hi8 camera I lugged around back then, and I would have killed for iMovie. If you’re in high school right now and want to make movies, you should be doing it.
    Right now. Stop reading. Go.

Try Film

This tip is is specific to October 2012, so if you’re reading this in the future, you can probably skip it.
   Film is going away. Quickly. We’ve shot all three of our movies on 35mm film, and in film school we made our student shorts on super 8mm and 16mm. I know that it’s expensive, I know it’s a pain in the ass. But it’s something that will be totally gone in 10 years. So I’m saying try it. Shoot it while you can. If you’ve only shot digital, get ahold of a super 8 camera and make at least one short on it. If you’re making a short film with a budget, stretch a little and shoot 16mm.
   First off, it looks so much cooler than digital. Second, this is sort of last-days-of-the-dodo time, nobody can say how much longer we’ve got with film, and you owe it to yourself to experience the sewing machine whirr of a camera turning over, the smell of the stock when you load it, and that weird magical thrill when you get it back from the lab and realize you’ve got an image.

Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, in The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Watch The Criterion Collection

Blindly choosing a movie I know nothing about that’s been vouched for by somebody (or by a great DVD label, like Criterion here in the states or Masters of Cinema in the UK) is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes it leads to muted appreciation, sometimes to flat out boredom, but when something grabs you and engages you it opens up not just a new movie you love but a new director and maybe genre or period you’ve never explored. It’s important to keep discovering.

Don’t Chase the Market

When I was trying to “break into the business” (I’m not sure why I put quotes around that) every once in awhile I’d get frustrated and say “Well, hell, X is really getting lots of attention this year, I should do one of those.” Then I’d make an X, whether it was a parody short or an action screenplay or whatever, and of course it would be derivative and not very good, and I would realize I’d wasted a chunk of time making something that didn’t get me anywhere.
   At the end of the day, the movie that got me noticed was something that nobody was asking for—a bizarre high school detective movie—but it was 100% mine. It was my individual voice, and it was something I cared deeply about. I think the biggest “breaking in” (man I did it again) lesson I learned is to not concentrate on breaking in, but to focus inward and just work on your thing. Cultivate what you care about and what’s unique to you. That’s what has the best chance of breaking through the clutter, and even if it doesn’t (because who the hell knows in this business), that’s what you care about and what matters.
   Making a short film that you’re proud of, and you feel is true and honest, that 200 people see on YouTube, is more fulfilling (and in the long run more productive) than chasing someone else’s dream, on any scale.

First posted:  14 December 2012

Friday 25 November 2016

Wednesday 23 November 2016

"Lydia the Tattooed Lady"

I first encountered this recording on the radio back in the early 1960s. Once heard, never forgotten. 

It is part of the Marx Brothers 1939 movie, At the Circus, and the singer is, of course, Groucho Marx.

Robin Williams does a great version of the song in The Fisher King (1991), but for tonight, we're sticking with Groucho.

First posted:12 December 2012

Monday 21 November 2016

Sunday 20 November 2016

Spike Milligan - What a Performance!

Spike Milligan is the focus of this extract from an episode of the Bob Monkhouse-hosted ITV series What A Performance!

Saturday 19 November 2016

Friday 18 November 2016

Clara Bow - Mysteries & Scandals

An episode of Mysteries & Scandals, the story of the original 'It Girl', Clara Bow.

Thursday 17 November 2016

China: A Skier's Journey

Skiing as a sport is in it’s infancy in China, a phenomenon of the country’s exploding middle class. As a means of survival, however, it is thousands of years old, a stone age hunter-gatherer technology born in the Altai mountains where China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Siberia merge. On a vast trajectory that spans 11,000km of Northern China, Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots touch down into the rich past and dizzying future of these two respective Chinese ski cultures. As one rapidly expands, they find the other is at risk of disappearing.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Interview with Adam Levenberg

Adam Levenberg is a former Hollywood executive (Intuition Productions, One Race Films) who spent years inside the system.

Once outside, he promptly wrote a book called The Starter Screenplay, which gives an executives' view of the factors that influence studio decision-making about spec scripts.

I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

•  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in Cheltenham and Upper Dublin, which are both suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

•  Where did you go to school?

I attended USC School of Cinematic Arts and majored in Critical Studies. It’s a great place to study cinema, but I think the reason for the school’s success is that every single student has already made the commitment (most at age 18) to move away from home and live in Los Angeles. Most of my friends from USC are still living in L.A. and working in the entertainment industry.

•  When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

Before I can remember. I have Dr. Seuss’s My Book About Me and for My Favorite Sport, I filled in “Watching.” As a kid, I was completely indiscriminate about what I watched—I just tried to see everything. I probably spent about 5-6 hours per day in front of the television. Weekends were spent watching movies at the theater or on video.
   By the time I hit film school, I was seeing about 200 movies per year. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood Cinema from the late 1980s to the present. I don’t watch sports, so when my friends are watching a game, I’m knocking off another film title.

•  What was your first paying job?

At 16, I worked as a dishwasher at Friendly’s, which is a restaurant and ice-cream chain.

•  What was your first job in the movie business?

My first paying entertainment job was producing a show for Trojan Vision, which is the USC television station. It was called Organized Chaos and we tried to make it as wild as possible. I think on the second show the hosts were doing a flavored condom taste test. Nobody was watching, so we tried to be as outrageous as possible just to entertain ourselves.
    My first real industry job was reading scripts for USA Films, which at the time had deals with Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze, and was making films like Traffic (2000), Nurse Betty (2000), and Being John Malkovitch (1999).
    It was interesting to read the projects that great filmmakers would submit and evaluating if the script or book had any potential as a feature film. The first book I did coverage on was submitted by an amazing filmmaker, but I didn’t understand how it could be adapted into a movie. I called in and was told, “Evaluate the material honestly. Don’t be swayed by the name on the cover letter or the names attached. If the book is a pass, it’s his job to explain to how he plans on adapting it into a great screenplay.”

•  What did you learn from working with Vin Diesel?

Vin likes the idea of building worlds and I learned a lot about intellectual property development. That works for an established actor/producer. But for screenwriters, I tend to suggest sticking to the screenplays. There’s nothing wrong with creating some concept art as inspiration for yourself, but if you don’t have representation, just focus on the writing because there’s no artwork that will make someone reconsider a script that doesn’t work. 

   One piece of advice from my book is that you should never worry about sequels or franchise building while you’re writing a spec script. I say this not because it’s a bad idea in theory, but because these attempts (especially from new writers) tend to result in unreadable screenplays. Creating effective setup and payoff in one screenplay is hard enough.

•  Why did you write The Starter Screenplay?

I went from being a production company executive to an independent consultant. Basically, my intention was to do the work of a development executive for multiple companies, make the same amount of money with more freedom to pursue projects I was interested in advancing. 
   Then a friend pointed out that I could allow unrepresented screenwriters to hire me for feedback. I got creative and e-mailed the writers who had queried me in the past. A bunch of them decided to send me their scripts. At the time I didn’t know that there were other companies out there who just sold notes without discussion, which is so much easier to do, but worthless for the writer. When someone hired me, I would read their script, then talk to them for 2-3 hours. I still do that, except now I make notations on the pdf of their screenplay. I do notes after, and then the discussion takes place within 24 hours, so I’m fresh.
    Once I started working with unrepresented screenwriters, I went looking for screenwriting books to recommend. I couldn’t find a single book that shared the perspective on what an executive is looking for, or a book that nudged writers in the direction of simplicity and commercialism, while still getting the hang of the medium. 

   So I wrote it. 
   The book is broken down into two parts—the first is What to Write? The second half is about Interacting with the Industry—how to decode people’s reactions to your material, including what it means if you don’t hear back from queries, or when someone says “I liked your script, it’s a pass.” 

Even executives have to unwind. Here's Adam on Space Mountain at Disneyland.
•  You wrote on Twitter that Australian screenwriters are your favorite clients. Why is that?

Professional Hollywood writers are used to being asked tough questions. They know how to separate their ego from the process of getting script notes. This can be an intimidating experience for a new screenwriter. Some get overwhelmed. But Australian writers (or at least the many who have hired me) do great taking constructive criticism in stride and staying upbeat. That’s important because they’re at full creative capacity when the conversation turns to “How can we fix this?”
    After a consult, I usually suggest a specific book on screenwriting (depending on the writer’s current level), run down a bunch of movie titles to see, and pick out some scripts for them, as well as discuss their next step in terms of the script. I ask all clients to let me know how they’re progressing with the work, what they thought of the scripts/book/movies, but only a certain percentage follow through. Australian writers definitely do a better job staying in communication with that feedback. Or again, at least that’s true of the many I’ve worked with thus far.

•  What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

At some point in the process, I had a long conversation with Anne Lower, who was working with Save the Cat. She explained how, by Snyder’s third book, he gave up on trying to defend his positions because, ultimately, people will either accept what you write, because they get it, or they won’t. That’s exactly what I needed to hear. I ended up cutting tons of unnecessary material as a result, once I wasn’t concerned with defending my suggestions from the exceptions to the rules. 

•  If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! is the essential foundation of screenwriting for any newbie. My book covers what types of movies you should write and how to navigate the industry; I intended it as a companion piece to Save The Cat! 
   I think once you know Snyder’s structure backwards and forwards, you’ll need to move on to more complex stuff, such as John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.
    It's important to note that most screenwriting books contain great points, but bury the important stuff under hundreds of pages. That’s why The Starter Screenplay is sparse and to the point—I talk about what to write and what not to write, from an executive’s perspective. An agent has to sell your script to a producer, and a producer has to sell your script to a studio. If there’s no chance of that happening, why would an agent agree to represent you in the first place?

What are your ten favorite movies of all time?

I don’t think I could limit it to ten... but off the top of my head:

Last year my favorite movie was The Help. This year, as of November, I've been blown away by Cabin in the Woods, Prometheus, Cloud Atlas, End of Watch, Wreck-It Ralph, Argo, and especially 21 Jump Street, for delivering humor and action alongside profound insight into today’s teen culture.

What's next for Adam Levenberg?

At the moment, I’m working on some fun projects as a producer, but I’m also launching a podcast, and teaching a screenwriting course on Saturdays at The Director’s Playhouse in Los Angeles. I developed the curriculum myself and it’s going well. We start with beginner and advanced classes in January 2013.

First posted:7 December 2012

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Trainspotting 2 - Trailer

First there was an opportunity... then there was a betrayal. 

Twenty years have gone by. Much has changed but just as much remains the same. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the only place he can ever call home. 

They are waiting for him: Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Other old friends are waiting too: sorrow, loss, joy, vengeance, hatred, friendship, love, longing, fear, regret, diamorphine, self-destruction and mortal danger, they are all lined up to welcome him, ready to join the dance.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Pano | LA

This film was shot by Joe Capra over a period of two years entirely in true panoramic form using two synced DSLR cameras side by side.

Friday 11 November 2016

Mandolin Man

Chris Thile, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Fred Newman, and Rich Dworsky with the "Mandolin Man" script from A Prairie Home Companion.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

How Google rates your website

It's widely believed that Google search results are produced entirely by computer algorithms—in large part because Google would like this to be widely believed. But in fact a little-known group of home-worker humans plays a large part in the Google process.

Yes, folks, it's people—not pigeons—after all. Read the whole story here.

First posted:  3 December 2012

Monday 7 November 2016

The Hero's Journey - Supercut

An illustration of the Joseph Campbell theory of The Hero's Journey.

Saturday 5 November 2016

The Gunfighter

In the tradition of classic westerns, a narrator sets up the story of a lone gunslinger who walks into a saloon. However, the people in this saloon can hear the narrator and the narrator may just be a little bit bloodthirsty.

Friday 4 November 2016

12 Best Long Takes in Film History

There's no greater statement of a director's prowess than a long shot in a single take. And these are twelve of the most masterful.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

"Red Hot Riding Hood"

Betty Grable
Red Hot Riding Hood
Red Hot Riding Hood is an animated cartoon short, directed by Tex Avery and released on May 8, 1943 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1994 it was voted #7 of The 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field, making it the highest ranked MGM cartoon on the list. 

Made in the middle of WWII, Red Hot Riding Hood was the cartoon embodiment of the GIs’ favorite pinup, Betty Grable. Despite her flashy costume and vamping, Red speaks in the cultured voice of Katharine Hepburn, and the manic Wolf in the suave tones of Charles Boyer.

Aspects of the cartoon were borrowed for later movies, notably Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Mask (1994).

Here is a cut-down version of the original. (Best I could do. Sorry.)

First posted:3 December 2012

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Spielberg's Ten Rules for Success

Steven Spielberg and his Top Ten Rules for Success.