Tuesday 30 May 2017

Everything I've learnt about making films - Nigel Cole

I first became aware of Nigel Cole when I saw Saving Grace (2000). My wife, who has never touched dope in her life, loves that movie. I don't know why. During my misspent youth, I encountered more than my share of green cigarettes, though I —naturally—have never inhaled.

Next up was Calendar Girls (2003), another oddly appealing movie, which has lingered on our Favourites list ever since. The hard-working director followed that with a series of films, including Made in Dagenham (2010).

Then he capped it all last year, with this, on Twitter.

And, as good as his word, he did. Here is the substance of those tweets, in order.

1. The script is everything. You can ruin it, but no amount of great acting, clever camera work or editing will make it better than the script.

2. Watching a film is like being hypnotised into a dream like state. Everything fake or false in the film shouts wake up! at the audience.

3. There are 2 parts to a film. The ending and everything else. Beginnings are easy. Any scene is a great opening scene. The ending is hard.

4. If you cast the wrong actor there is very little you can do. If you can’t find the right actor rewrite the part for an actor you love.

5. Every scene needs to move the story along in some way. If it doesn’t you’ll cut it after the first preview.

6. Shooting a film is all about compromise. Knowing where you can’t compromise is what makes you different from other directors.

7. Most actors want to be great. So they try and do great acting. Tell them to stop it.

8. A hundred minutes is a long time to keep audiences interested. The second act really needs to get interesting.

9. The small parts make a big difference. Give them character—there is no such thing as a receptionist or policeman. They are people.

10. Don’t get stuck on an approach to a scene. There’s little point in doing 27 takes of the same thing. If it isn’t working change something.

11. Characters don’t have to be nice to be likeable. Nice is boring. But they do have to be entertaining.

12. Never ask the actors to improvise sex scenes. It’s very embarrassing for them. You need to tell them what to do. Move by move.

13. Try to give an actor just one note at a time. It’s impossible to lose yourself in a scene if you are trying to remember a dozen notes.

14. Never have a character talk to themselves. Always looks fake. Find an action that reveals the character’s thought process.

15. It’s tempting to do lots of angles of the scenes you love and skimp on the duller ones. Wrong. It’s the dodgy scenes that need options.

16. All storytelling is a balance between subtlety and clarity. How do you be clear without being obvious? Solve that and you’re on your way.

17. You can start a story with a chance event or coincidence but by act 2 it all has to be driven by the choices the characters are making.

18. Movement is the forgotten art of film. Move your actors in a way that illuminates the scene rather than placing them to suit the camera.

19. Pace is the hardest thing to judge on set. But in the cutting room it’s almost always too slow. Make sure you do a quicker take.

20. Don’t just shoot the dialogue. Ask yourself what the characters are seeing, show the audience the world through your character’s eyes.

21. Storyboards are useful for action and SFX. Useless for everything else. Watch the scene with an open mind—then decide how to shoot it.

22. Continuity is over rated. It’s only a problem five percent of the time. The trouble is knowing which five percent.

23. Get out from behind the monitor on set. It’s an easy place to hide but go and watch the scene with your own eyes. The actors will love it.

24. Rushes are hard to watch—a time consuming, demoralising, insomnia producing, backwards looking nightmare. But you’ve got to do it.

25. Be specific. Don’t be vague. Make your mind up, say something, make choices. Decide specifically what you are saying at each moment.

26. Rehearsals before the shoot starts are a chance to get all the talking done. There’s so little time on set.

27. No one ever noticed the shoes a character is wearing in a film. But the actors and wardrobe people care very much about shoes.

28. On set, shoot the rehearsal. Everyone will complain but it will probably be the best performance and minor technical issues won’t matter.

29. All film is horrible until you put music on it. Most directors watch rushes with music in b.g and slap it all over the cut from day one.

30. Stay away from the snack table (in the USA known as craft services). Directing a film is bad enough for your health as it is.

31. Finished films are never as good as the rushes and never as bad as the first assembly.

32. Never do a joke on top of another joke. One joke at a time.

33. Crossing the line is an easy concept to grasp (google it) but I’ve seen cameramen with thirty years experience get confused by it.

34. However long the shoot you’ll wish you had more time. Cut the script before you start. Try not to shoot scenes you didn’t need.

35. Practice telling your story on friends, strangers—everybody. Only when people tell you that you have a great story will you be ready.

36. Some actors get better the more takes they have and some get worse. When planning coverage shoot the ones that get worse first.

37. Just because the crew are laughing doesn’t mean it’s funny.

38. In script meetings most people’s notes are about logic. I don’t believe this character would do that. I don’t believe that would happen.

39. You are going to be with your editor 18 hours a day for several months, crammed together in a small room. Choose someone you like.

40. To get a job a director must persuade the producer that they will do a better job than their previous work suggests they will.

41. Most actors are good at saying the lines as if for the first time. Looking as if you are hearing lines for the first time is harder.

42. Test screenings are vital, watching with an audience tells you what’s wrong with the cut. But ignore focus groups, they will confuse you.

43. You are going to hate the poster. But there’s nothing you can do about it.

44. The best moments happen by accident. Create an atmosphere where they will happen. Here’s an example from Brando. youtu.be/dHtJUWO7yeA

45. Story is mystery. Withholding information is more important than giving it. Make the audience ask questions. Create suspense.

46. Ask yourself what the purpose of the scene is. Why haven’t you cut it? Make sure that is what you shoot.

47. Extras get a lot of stick. But they can bring a scene alive for the actors if you motivate them properly.

48. Crews work harder when there is naked actor on set. Everyone gets busy so they are not caught looking.

49. A prop that looks fake can kill a scene. Suitcases must look heavy for fucks sake.

50. Have something to say.

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First posted: 1 February 2013

Monday 29 May 2017

Screenwriting lesson from Ted Griffin

Ted Griffin is an L.A.-based screenwriter who wrote Ocean's Eleven, Matchstick Men, Rumour Has It..., Killers, and Tower Heist.

He broke into Hollywood in the late 1990s, selling a series of spec scripts that have so far gone unproduced, including Mobile in 1997, and Solace and Beached in 1998. These landed him an early rewrite assignment for a comedy called Domestic Partners, which has also gone unproduced.

Here he is, talking about his career.

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First posted: 27 January 2013

Sunday 28 May 2017

Coming your way...

A few movie posters from Cannes 2017.

Saturday 27 May 2017

"All I Do Is Think Of You"

Chico was the eldest of the Marx Brothers, but the youngest of them when he died (age 74) in 1961. 

Chico was a talented pianist. He originally started playing with only his right hand and fake playing with his left. As a young boy, he gained jobs playing piano to earn money for the Marx family. Sometimes he worked playing in two places at the same time. He would acquire the first job with his piano-playing skills, work for a few nights, and then substitute Harpo on one of the jobs. (During their boyhood, Chico and Harpo looked so much alike that they were often mistaken for each other.)

Groucho Marx stated that his brother got the name Chico because he was a "Chicken-chaser" (early slang for chasing women). He also said that Chico never practiced the pieces he played. Instead, before performances he soaked his fingers in hot water. He was known for 'shooting' the keys of the piano. He played passages with his thumb up and index finger straight, like a gun, as part of the act. 

For a while in the 1930s and 1940s, Chico led a big band. Singer Mel Tormé began his professional career singing with the Chico Marx Orchestra.

Here he plays "All I Do Is Think Of You" in A Night at the Opera (1935), for a group of delighted children. 

[Watch how the Hollywood power game was being played, even by children, back in 1935. At the start of this piece, a small boy takes his place next to the piano. A much larger kid makes his way over, then muscles in, displacing the little kid.]

First posted: 25 January 2013

Friday 26 May 2017

Hitchcock cameos

I've been reading Hitchcock: The definitive study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut, first published in 1967, a fascinating book, about which I will have more to say down the road.

While talking about The Lodger (1927), Truffaut raises the question of "personal appearances" and asks Hitchcock why he made them. Hitchcock answers:

"It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually 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."
My favourite cameo, from North by Northwest. Alfred Hitchcock tries to catch a bus on Madison Avenue between 44th Street and 45th Street. Long before he ever went to the USA, Hitchcock's hobby was the study of Manhattan. He'd memorised every train timetable, as well as the location of all the major stores.
There are numerous lists of those personal appearances around. Some have him appearing in 36 films, most have 37, some (Wikipedia) have 40. The disputed films include Number 17, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Rebecca. (Why people argue over the Rebecca entry mystifies me, as the Hitchcock|Truffaut book contains a large photo of the moment. The earlier films have the problem of blurry B&W.) Here's my list:
  • The Lodger (1927) - At a desk in a newsroom and later in the crowd watching an arrest.
  • Easy Virtue (1928) - Walking past a tennis court, carrying a walking stick.
  • Blackmail (1929) - Being hassled by a small boy on a train.
  • Murder! (1930) - Walking past the house where the murder was committed.
  • The 39 Steps (1935) - Walking past and tossing litter, while the stars catch a bus.
  • Young and Innocent (1937) - Outside the courthouse, holding a camera.
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938) - In Victoria Station, smoking a cigarette.
  • Rebecca (1940) - Walking near the phone booth, just after George Sanders makes a call.
  • Foreign Correspondent (1940) - After Joel McCrea leaves his hotel, he's wearing a coat and hat, and reading a newspaper.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) - Passing Robert Montgomery in front of his building.
  • Suspicion (1941) - Mailing a letter at the village postbox. And walking a horse across the screen at a hunt-meet.
  • Saboteur (1942) - Standing in front of Cut Rate Drugs in New York as the saboteur’s car stops.
  • Shadow of A Doubt (1943) - On the train to Santa Rosa, playing cards.
  • Lifeboat (1944) - In the “before” and “after” pictures in the newspaper ad for weight reduction.
  • Spellbound (1945) - Coming out of an elevator, carrying a violin case and smoking a cigarette.
  • Notorious (1946) - Drinking champagne.
  • The Paradine Case (1947) - Leaving the train, carrying a cello.
  • Rope (1948) - On a neon sign.
  • Under Capricorn (1949) - In the town square during a parade, wearing a blue coat and brown hat, in the first five minutes. Ten minutes later, he is one of three men on the steps of Government House.
  • Stage Fright (1950) - Turning to look at Jane Wyman in her disguise as Marlene Dietrich’s maid.
  • Strangers on A Train (1951) - Boarding a train with a double bass, early in the film.
  • I Confess (1953) - Crossing the top of a staircase after the opening credits.
  • Dial M for Murder (1954) - On the left side of the class-reunion photo.
  • Rear Window (1954) - Winding the clock in the songwriter’s apartment.
  • To Catch A Thief (1955) - Sitting to the left of Cary Grant on a bus.
  • The Trouble With Harry (1955) - Walking past the parked limousine of an old man who is looking at paintings.
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - Watching acrobats (his back to the camera) just before the murder.
  • The Wrong Man (1956) - Narrating the film’s prologue.
  • Vertigo (1958) - In a gray suit walking in the street.
  • North By Northwest (1959) - Missing a bus during the opening credits.
  • Psycho (1960) - Through Janet Leigh’s window as she returns to her office. He is wearing a cowboy hat.
  • The Birds (1963) - Leaving the pet shop with two white terriers.
  • Marnie (1964) - Entering from the left of the hotel corridor after Tippi Hedren passes by.
  • Torn Curtain (1966) - Sitting in the Hotel d’Angleterre lobby with a baby.
  • Topaz (1969) - Being pushed in a wheelchair.
  • Frenzy (1972) - In the centre of a crowd, wearing a bowler hat, three minutes into the film.
  • Family Plot (1976) - In silhouette through the door of the Registrar of Births and Deaths.
The following video assembles every cameo appearance listed above into a single clip.

First posted: 22 January 2013

Thursday 25 May 2017

Australian talent quest

In 1996, a stray bunch of Australians (plus a Scotsman and a Canadian) came together to make a movie. The movie is called Cosi, and it is the most underrated film Australia ever produced (after Hercules Returns). 
A young amateur theater director is offered a job with a Government program for the rehabilitation of the mentally ill. His project is hijacked by a patient who wants to stage Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart.
One of the best things about Cosi is that it includes Australia's greatest ever talent quest. Try this for group for size: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, Greta Scacchi, Colin Hay, Ben Mendelsohn, Barry Otto, Aden Young, Pamela Rabe, Colin Friels, and Paul Mercurio.

Here's the talent competition, so you can judge for yourself.

First posted: 19 January 2013

Saturday 13 May 2017

Air fresheners in movies

I was waiting at a bus stop recently when I noticed a car with a Christmas Tree air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror, which put me in mind of Repo Man (1984) and the whole business of the Little Trees homage shots that subsequently made their way into movies and TV.

Repo Man features pine tree-shaped air fresheners in almost every vehicle in the movie, including the police motorcycle. People will tell you that the manufacturer, Little Trees, funded the movie, but that's not true. No money changed hands, but a number of air fresheners did. It is part of the legend that every Little Tree used in the movie was scent-free, because no one could handle the smell of them.

Repo Man is a cult movie, little known in the mainstream, but beloved by aficionados, who include many young Hollywood directors. I don't know exactly when the trend started, but it became a thing to include a Christmas Tree air freshener somewhere in your movie. Here are some examples.

Repo Man (1984). The first car recovered by Emilio Estevez has a blue one.

In Repo Man (1984), even the police motorcycle has one.

Cadillac Man (1990). Robin William's wife has a red one.

Robin Williams wears a green one in The Fisher King (1991).

Charles Durning has two in his car in Home for the Holidays (1995).

Full screen in Ocean's Eleven (2001). Is this big enough?
In The Wire (2002), Season 1, Episode 2, Rawls tosses the wrong office. Landsman points out that this is McNulty's office. Notice the green leaf, bottom right.
As befits a Shopgirl (2005), Claire Danes has a pink one.
In 10 Items or Less (2006), Morgan Freeman checks all the options...
... before choosing a green Christmas Tree for Paz Vega's car.
In The Unit (2007), the CIA use a green one as a signalling device.

Ellen Page has the red Autumn Leaf version in Juno (2007).
Amy Poehler has a red Christmas Tree in Baby Mama (2008).
And in Despicable Me (2010), Gru opts for a generic green one.

First posted: 18 January 2013

Friday 12 May 2017

Sunday 7 May 2017

100 Greatest "Music Scenes" in Movies

Mew Lists has come up with their version of the 100 Greatest "Music Scenes" in Movies. I know you'll disagree with some of them. I would have liked to see the following included: Ray Charles singing "Mess Around" in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), the "Stayin Alive" segment from Foul Play (1978), the karaoke scene from Paperback Hero (1999), the title song from Shaft (1971), the title song from Live and Let Die (1973), "Let the River Run" from Working Girl (1988), "Why Don't You Do Right" from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy (1990), "Cruisin'" from Duets (2000), the title track from Mo' Better Blues (1990), the karaoke scene from The Actors (2003), Wolfman Jack playing "Green Onions" in American Graffiti (1973), "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys, and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" from At The Circus (1939).

What about you?

In case you were curious...

Saturday 6 May 2017

Chili Palmer Talks Screenwriting

Can you believe it? Get Shorty is now twenty-two years old. Where did that time go?

Friday 5 May 2017