Category: Film Making

The Best Worst Movie

This one’s for you, Mike Tully!

Two weeks ago, I’d never even heard of Troll 2 – or maybe I had, but cast it off alonside Ghoulies 2, Critters 2 and other late-80s pint-sized monster sequels – and their predecessors, for that matter – whose posters made an impression on me on childhood trips to the videostore but whose promises I never sought to later fulfill. When I first read that the news that the Alamo Drafthouse was going to be screening Troll 2, I actually misinterpreted it as Leprechaun 2, and wondered what all the hype was about. Then I watched this clip, which pretty much sealed my fate. How could you not want to see this?

The Best Worst Movie

The people to whom I’d mention the film’s title would fall into two distinct camps; those who had no idea what I was talking about, and those who’d already seen it about ten times and, upon hearing about a midnight screening at the best movie theater in the country with most of the original cast present, would get this strange light in their eyes. Dear reader, I now understand that reaction.

My friend Clay and I drove down to Austin and made it to the Alamo about ninety minutes early, just as the line that would soon wrap around the black was just beginning to form. The theater, when we were finally admitted, quickly filled to capacity (rumors trickled in that fans who had driven all the way from New Orleans were among the many turned away at the door). Green cookies and milk were passed out, the cast was introduced to great applause, they apologized profusely for what was about to be exhibited, and then the lights went down. A few vintage trailers for upcoming screenings preceeded the feature (Grizzly, Humanoids From The Deep) and then, with the annunciative roar of the MGM lion, Troll 2 – a film from whose negative not a single print was ever struck – trickled across the silver screen in front of the single largest audience ever assembled to view it.

I can’t imagine a better context in which to watch such an amazing movie. It is absolutely, beautifully wretched, and just competent enough in execution to be insanely watchable (unlike, say, Manos, The Hands Of Fate, which is often its chief competition for title of worst film of all time). There’s really no point in trying to describe it, but this really brilliant trailer (which they projected after the film) hints at a lot of what makes it so wonderful.

The Q&A; afterwards was fun and enlightening. It was revealed that since the screenplay was entirely in Italian, with only the dialogue translated into English, the cast had no idea what was going on in the film as they were making it. Michael Stephenson, AKA Joshua, talked about how he had to live the film down all through high school. Darren Ewing, the stellar thespian who played Arnold, got up on the stage and gave a performance of his infamous “They’re eating her!” monologue.

Most endearing of the bunch was George Hardy, who was randomly cast as Mr.Waits before returning to a quiet life of dentistry in Alabama. He seemed tickled pink that he’d somehow – in this theater, at least, for this one night – become a cult icon. Of course, the cult seems to be growing; more screenings are being planned, and Lions Gate is producing a documentary on the phenomenon, in which you might actually catch a glimpse of yours truly, sitting near the front row of this landmark event and grinning in disbelief at how great this awful little movie really is.

Recent Reviews

Reversing The Gaze: so called because, while I’m a filmmaker first and foremost, I also like to write about films and converse with their makers. I write about cinema because a.) I enjoy it and b.) it increases my understanding of the medium, which in turn is an aid to my own sense of the craft. I hope this insight extends to you, the reader, and that you enjoy reading my thoughts, however ridiculous you think they may be.

You’ll find that most of my reviews concern smaller fare – art house, foreign and/or independent films – the type that usually needs more of a boost. That’s not to say I won’t write about a good Hollywood film now and then, but generally my focus ranges on films that are slightly (refreshingly) off the beaten path.

OMATG – Wrapped!

OMATG - Wrapped!

Week six ended at 5 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and with it went all the usual stress of a film production in full swing. We still had a little bit more to go, but that little bit would fit into just two days, with a travel day in between. It felt like we were basically done.

And basically done we were! Monday was a long split with lots of shots in tight quarters (a motel room, which we realized halfway through is the one set which there’s no excuse to never build on a stage) and a higher page count than any previous day of production, but it was unburdened by the usual subconscious consideration of the days and weeks ahead. We wrapped at four in the morning, marking the official completion of production in Ohio. I went home and watched a rough assembly of a scene we’d shot a few weeks prior, and lo and behold it mostly worked and so the spirits I fell to sleep in were good, and remained so the next day when we drove up to Michigan, and were good still the morning after that, for that final wake-up, the last morning meditation, the one remaining drive to set. We got to prison at 7:30, got our first shot off by 9 and then just kept shooting. We shot, and shot and shot, for almost eighteen hours. Seven scenes, seven locations. By the end of it we all got a little loopy. I lost confidence in one scene and thought about scrapping it, but Joe Anderson figured out how to make it work. Everyone was a trooper.

It was almost 1am before we arrived at our martini. The set-up looked just like this, but with Robert Redford in place of Dutch, our beloved 1st AD.

OMATG - Wrapped!

We rolled the first take. It wasn’t great. We did a second. It was good. We went for a third, and the mechanism that made the prison cell doors open broke. A few minutes were spent trying to fix it before I decided that take two was fine and asked to check the gate. The gate was good, and the movie was wrapped. Anticlimax has never been so satisfying.

I’m doing best not to romanticize the end of things because it wasn’t really over – we’ll be getting together later this summer to get some pre-ordained pickups and anything else I decide we need between now and then. But for now it’s done, and it was great, and if this really is Redford’s final movie in front of the camera, we did our best to send him off well. I’ve made two movies with him now and am a luckier person and better storyteller for it.

A few of the things I learned on this film are:

  1. A little bit more about how to work with actors – a never-ending study that always reveals new dimensions, partially within the process but mostly in myself.
  2. How to let go a little bit more and not shoulder everyone else’s burdens. Everyone has creative challenges on movies, but I chose the people I chose because I trust them to handle them well.
  3. How to move on after take two. And sometimes takes one! But almost always by take three. If you get a good take and don’t know how to make it better, don’t ask for another one just because. But if you do, which you probably will, and it doesn’t get better, don’t do another one after that. Swap a lens or move on!
  4. How to watch the take unfolding before me with a clear focus and no presuppositions. This is a lot harder for me than it should be.
  5. That if you are going to be working with rain towers or in potentially inclement weather, invest in a good pair of waterproof pants (water proof, not water resistant). Worth their weight in rainwater that would otherwise be soaking through your jeans.
  6. That you should always and only work with a gang of folks who will leave you sincerely quoting Royal Tenenbaum: “I’m loving every minute with this damn crew.” I knew this already but it’s always good to be reminded of it

I drove home last Friday, down through the bluffs of Kentucky, across the Mississippi, under the Ozarks. As I crossed the state line back into Texas, I did a previously scheduled interview with American Cinematographer about A Ghost Story, which was just about as fitting a transition as I could have asked for. This past Monday, after unpacking, I watched the final DCP of that film at the Texas Theatre. It was the first time seeing the film since before Sundance – and I loved it! It was exactly what it should be. It looked and sounded better than ever.The only three things that bothered me:

  • The credits, which used to be really short, are now really long – a last minute change due to various union stipulations and such. We all love our unions so no arguments there, but sorry to anyone who’s sitting through them. Hopefully they’re calm and meditative in lieu of being expeditious or aesthetically inventive.
  • The accidental glimpse of a Nietzche book on a bookshelf. People are going to read way too much into that, but it was purely accidental, just one of many prop books gleaned from a second hand store, and its presence means nothing. When we were shooting that bookshelf scene, what I was really worried we’d see too much of a Garcia Marquez book, which is far more apropos – but it’s practically invisible.
  • The whole movie felt too short!

Lastly: I saw Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion last night. It was phenomenal. The tintype time-lapse is already the best VFX sequence of the year. And there was one line I repeated to myself over and over after it was uttered so I wouldn’t forget it, because it has a whole lot to do with A Ghost Story.

Posterity is as comfortless as God.
Well said, movie version of Emily Dickinson.

Following Last

Following Last

Following last month’s Showgirls discussion, it was decided that such blog-a-thons should be regular things. The second round was scheduled for today, and thus you’ll be able to spend your pre-Valentine’s Day afternoon reading different takes on this month’s selected title: Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. Less fun to discuss en masse than Verehoeven’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-camp classic? Perhaps, but I relished the opportunity for the sole reason that, of Haneke’s recent slate of domestically distributed pictures (beginning with Funny Games in 1997), this was the only I’d missed. Now that I’ve seen it, I feel as if I’ve found the one missing piece to a puzzle.

La Pianiste was my introduction to his work, but now it’s suddenly clear to me how much of an anomaly that film is. It is the sole introspective work from a filmmaker whose gaze is otherwise tunred outward; or, I should say, his films are always introspective, but they examine the societal psyche, rather than that of the individual. Indeed, one of the two overriding themes in Haneke’s oveure is a contrast of castes; this could be seen as tantamount to a sensitive but incisive indictment of the bourgoisie, but I think Haneke is too considerate for that sort of generalization.

Caché is perhaps the most overt example of Haneke’s social concerns, but Code Unknown is its direct thematic precedent; it is also far more ambitious, and substantially more oblique. The film is an elliptical accumulation of scenes, centered around a handful of characters in France and/or Eastern Europe. Most of these scenes are comprised of extremely long takes that are, in their seeming uneventfulness, as deceptive the final shot in Caché. Others are more dynamic, and serve almost as microcosms of the film as a whole; the most immediately impressive sequence is the lengthy steadicam shot in an upscale restaurant, in which the camera drifts from one table, where a popular actress (Juliette Binoche) is having dinner with friends, to another, where a young black man (Ona Lu Yenke) is trying to impress his white date. Binoche and Yenke met at the beginning of the film, but they do not interact in this scene; they simply exist simultaneously in the same space, holding independent conversations, unconsciously creating an unspeakably tense social dynamic. In Haneke’s films, the gray area where classes merge is a dangerous one (as categorically evidenced in Caché).

I mentioned that classism is one of two themes in Haneke’s work; the second, as I see it, would be the involvement of the viewer. Haneke is fond of implicating his audience, breaking the fourth wall in unexpected and subtly (or, in the case of Funny Games, explicitly) devious ways; these are films that, in the great postmodernist tradition, have a lot to do with the process of watching them. In Code Unknown, the subjective trickery involves a thriller Binoche’s character is starring in, entitled The Collector, a few sequences from which are woven into the film. They last just long enough for us become involved in this new, comparatively pedestrian narrative before Haneke jerks us back out again, forcing us to reassess both the placement of those scenes and our reactions to them in relation to the overall scheme of the film. There is an early videotaped (check) rehearsal of a scene in which Binoche is terrorized (check) by an unseen figure (check); her face fills with terror as she’s informed of her impending death, tears fall from her eyes – and then the director stops her to give her some direction. Compare this to the adjacent scene in which Yenke’s mother sobs over the mistreatment of her son by the police; there’s no resolution for her sorrow, no one to tell her what she’s supposed to feel. This disparity in emotion ties into a key decision (or lack thereof) on Binoche’s part later in the film involving a little girl living in a neighboring apartment; and this development loops right back to a scene in The Collector involving an endangered child.

Code Unknown is itself a thriller, although the image of Binoche’s frozen scream featured on the film’s posters and DVD cases might mislead audiences (or even Haneke fans like myself who note its placement between the genuinely shocking Funny Games and La Pianiste) into expecting something more visceral. Instead, the thrills are of a distinctly cerebral kind; the film is so meticulously structured and so evasive of our immediate grasp that the gradual emergence of its purpose is more exciting than any of the scenes we see in The Collector. It is difficult to involve one’s self with the characters here, emotionally or otherwise – Haneke’s sharp cutting purposely works against our tendency to empathize – but it is impossible not to become caught up in the intellect of the film, and its dialectical structure.

It’s worth noting that the lines of reality are very clearly drawn in Code Unknown (something this film shares with La Pianiste and Le Temps Du Loups, both of which, incidentally, keep that fourth wall intact and reject any postmodern narrative trappings), whereas Funny Games and Caché allow the suspension of certain reflexive boundaries (who’s been making the videotapes in Caché? I think the answer is in Funny Games). Over the course of these five films, Haneke is constantly revisiting various combinations of themes and narrative and stylistic traits (reading other blog-a-thon entries this morning, I realized that whenever his films revolve around a couple, their names are always Anne and Georges), resulting in a genuinely cohesive – and fascinating – body of work. By the time that last abrupt cut-to-black occurred on the big screen in La Pianiste three years ago, I was hooked on this filmmaker – but I’ve only just now begun to realize why.

Also worth noting: Code Unknown seems to require at least two viewings, something I wasn’t, due to my schedule this weekend, able to give it. Thus, I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the film, and I’m looking forward to reading the other varying perspectives today, and seeing what I missed.

For the record, Le Temps Du Loups is both my favorite of his films and one of the very best pictures of the decade thus far. Also, has anyone seen his 1997 adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle?

Girish’s post, wonderful in and of itself, comes complete with a full run-down of participants in this Blog-A-Thon. Drop him an e-mail if you’d like to participate in next month’s round, which will feature the entire body of work of Abel Ferarra…

Thoughts On Self Distribution, Pt. 1

We were driving down the street the other night and I saw poster for some online music company with Aimee Mann’s face on it. The text said “Writing Music From The Heart. Even When It’s Broken.” It was cute, but I liked it, and one thought lead to another, as thoughts tend to do, and I started to think about how nice it would be to make films the way folk singers make songs.

The holy grail of independent filmmaking was, and generally still is, an acquisition deal, a theatrical release, and a subsequent industry-financed career. In some cases, that initial independence was a means to an inverse end; more commonly, though, that same end was (and is) a mean unto itself, a manner of making a living off one’s chosen art form in the most practical way possible. This category would include most of the current indie wunderkinds (the two Andersons, Aronofsky, etc). The practicality of their circumstance, of course, is mitigated by the relative infrequency of such success stories; but nonetheless, those stories are the ideal for many aspiring (and, indeed, practicing) independent filmmakers.

Let’s consider, however, the sum of the following:

  1. The very rarity of those cases.
  2. The fact that, when they do occur, the balance of capitalism and artistic freedom renders the studio system a very wealthy middleman.
  3. The possibility that the studio system is indeed crumbling [1] under the weight of its own hegemonic inflexibility and hubristic marginalization of product – its “death spiral,” as Edward Jay Epstein put it. [2]

That last factor may be a bit hyperbolic; Hollywood, being the capital driven machine it is, will more than likely maintain its hold on the entertainment industry; even as it evolves, its goals will remain the same. [3] Still, between digital pipelines, day-and-date DVD and theatrical releasing, etc, it is hard to deny that a paradigm shift is at hand; and it might be a good time for independent filmmakers to consider whether or not that lofty ideal of yore need endure. In other words, should filmmakers be afraid of self-distribution?

Thoughts On Self Distribution, Pt. 1

At this point, it’s perfectly natural to say yes; hey, the idea scares me, too. [4] Furthermore, it implies an automatic financial cap, since private equity will only very rarely carry a budget past the one million dollar range, at the very best (at least for an unknown artist); if you’re a filmmaker who can’t imagine making a film for less than five million, then you better go back to vying for the attention of the studios. For those who are comfortable (or excited by) working with relatively minimal means, on the other hand, encouragement can be found in two recent hybrid examples. Andrew Bujalski successfully self-distributed his film Funny Ha Ha [5] on 35mm this past summer, before releasing it on DVD through Wellspring. Likewise, Greg Pak released Robot Stories around the country over the course of two years; the film is now on DVD from Kino.

It seems increasingly clear to me that, misgivings be damned, it isn’t necessary at all to preclude the financial impossibility of extensive self-distribution, nor to limit such distribution to the internet and/or DVD. For a scale model, one simply needs to look at the record industry. The internet is, of course, shaking things up a great deal; but beyond that, artists have been realizing they don’t necessarily need major label deals to make a living off their music. In his article ‘The New US Indie Film Frontier: DIY Distribution,’ filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake writes that “in the indie rock world, disciplined and committed bands make a living through touring and performing their work and through selling their songs on CDs and other formats.” Citing self-sustaining artists like Fugazi as examples, Ekanayake goes on to surmise that the same model is most likely applicable to an independent filmmaker. [6]

What makes his perspective unique – and especially appealing to a romantic big screen aficionado like myself – is that it is based around the old fashioned ideal of theatrical exhibition, followed by (or perhaps concurrent with) DVD distribution. This is roughly the equivalent, in the recording industry, of having an album on store shelves and performances in live venues (whereas VOD might be considered tantamount to mP3 downloads from an artist’s site – an equally viable means of distribution, by all means, but it’s important to remember that distribution shouldn’t begin and/or end with the internet). [7]

There is one factor that is of utmost importance to any unknown artist in any medium: building an audience. It is here that the internet is invaluable. For filmmakers, who don’t have the luxury of being able to go out and play a show the way musicians can, creating an online presence can be very important. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the directors of Four Eyed Monsters, are perhaps the most important current examples of this; their film doesn’t have distribution, but through word-of-mouth from festival screenings and their video podcasts, they’ve built up a substantial online presence. When their film is eventually released, it will have a built-in-audience. When they make their next film, that audience will be even larger. They could very well receive offers from studios, and at that point, they’ll have a choice to make. They’ll be in a position similar to that of established artists who realize they don’t necessarily need corporate support to be successful.

An example of this in music, to an extent, would be Aimee Mann, who now releases all of her music through her United Musicians label. Likewise, filmmaker Hal Hartley now produces all his films independently and releases them through his own company, Possible Films. Both Mann and Hartley had bad experiences with their respective backers; later, when they made the jump to their own independent imprints, they took their audiences with them. [8]

The demographic to which these artists are appealing is a very small but extremely viable one. It is the same one that Mark Cuban is counting on to make his very artistically minded low-budget HDNet productions (such as Soderbergh’s Bubble) profitable ventures.[9] This audience already knows Soderbergh’s name; he doesn’t need a blog to convince them to see his film. This same audience could very likely be driving home from the theater listening to new albums by Aimee Mann and Fugazi; it is an audience that, by and large, is interested in and even anxious to support intelligent art that challenges the status quo. Filmmakers like Buice and Crumley – and Ekanayake, and Joe Swanberg, and Caveh Zahedi, and countless others – are slowly but surely making them just as familiar (on a more limited basis) with their own work. They – we- need to let that already relatively fringe contingent know that there’s quite a bit of light even further underground.

Musicians still have it easier;[10] a songwriter can sit down and compose a new piece, which shortly thereafter will be ready to be recorded, performed, exhibited. That is an oversimplification of the process, perhaps, but the comparitive difference is nonetheless a steep one: a filmmaker has to go through the exhaustive process of making a film to arrive at the same point. But let’s shove that disparity aside, for the fact of the matter is that thousands of filmmakers are reaching that point each year, and out of those thousands, I’m willing to bet that hundreds of great films are not reaching the audiences that deserve to see them.

At this point, as I suggested earlier, it is unfair to expect these independent filmmakers to jump at the possibility of self-distribution. Releasing a film , especially a theatrically, is more work than making one in the first place, and not all filmmakers have the business savvy necessary for such an endeavor. Nor should one expect filmmakers to forego a chance, should they have it, to make a film within the studio system. What I would like to see, however, are more filmmakers working from the ground up to establish their names and a fanbase – be it through the internet, film festivals, or even acquisition and distribution – and then, inversely to the growth of that platform, taking steps towards separating themselves from any larger entities. Towards establishing complete creative autonomy. That will be the new holy grail. The classic Hollywood deal, then, would be a means to that end; a means which will eventually render itself entirely unnecessary.