February 27, 2007
Paramount sent out a pretty neat promotional item last week: an exact replica of one of the greeting cards the Zodiac Killer mailed to journalist Paul Avery in 1970.
Avery is played by Robert Downey, Jr. in David Fincher's Zodiac, which I'm really looking forward to. I'm a pretty big David Fincher fan (although the fact that I think Panic Room is his best film probably puts me at odds with his other devotees). He's a brilliant crafstman, and while he's not a writer-director, he seems to take the time to find scripts that will not only be well served by his mathematical precision, but are worth what he's capable of bringing to them. He's a stylist, yes, but unlike other stylists such as, say, DePalma, whose films proceed on a shot-by-dynamic-shot basis, Fincher's aesthetic is one of narrative kinesis; his work is full of invisible set pieces, invisible because they've been manufactured to flow perfectly to and from whatever precedes and proceeds them. He combines the pefectly articulated structure of Hitchcock with the painstaking finesse of Kubrick, planning his films down to the very last frame, and they represent (among other things) an element of filmmaking that I'm pretty terrible at: preparation. I'm a sort of accidental perfectionist; I never know exactly what I'm looking for, but I keep going until I get it. Fincher keeps going, too, but towards a different end; he's looking for a shot that's already been conceived, storyboarded, pre-visualized and designed to a hilt.
But what's interesting about Zodiac is that he seems to be a little tired of that method. From a great New York Times story last week:
On Panic Room he grew frustrated with his process — detailed storyboarding and previsualization to diagram a movie shot-by-shot — because it left little room for discovery, Mr. Fincher said. “It just felt wrong, like I didn’t get the most out of the actors, because I was so rigid in my thinking,” he said. “I was kind of impatiently waiting for everybody to get where I’d already been a year and a half ago."
I'm really interested in seeing how he marries that perfectionist streak with a less structured process. I'm seeing the film in a few hours, and I'll amend this post a little later with my thoughts.
In short, for now, the film is pretty amazing; a procedural game of hop-scotch across hours, weeks, years, decades. Fincher uses exactly two transitional tricks (one of which is a stunning time lapse sequence showing the constructino of the Transamerica Pyramid) to bridge a few gaps in time, but by and large, the most overt example of his newfound restraint is in his use of the most traditional tool at a filmmaker's disposal: he cuts.
Posted by David Lowery at 1:32 PM
February 26, 2007
I'm An Idiot
I started this new spec script called The Monster Child on January 31st. I decided that I'd give myself exactly one month on it, and I was all due to finish it on February 31st until I realized (last night) that February has no 31st.
It's just that sort of thing that always throws me completely off...
February 22, 2007
Nick Dawson at Filmmaker links to a recording of Samuel L. Jackson performing the blues classic Stackolee, a song which has been covered by, among others, Missisippi John Hurt under the title Stagolee and Nick Cave as Stagger Lee (the latter version is the first I ever heard, and seeing Cave and Warren Ellis perform it in concert in New Orleans a few years ago set the bar against which I've judged live performances ever since).
This new recording is from a terrific concert scene in Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, which I saw a few weeks ago. I had a lot of problems with Brewer's Hustle & Flow (and a lot of problems with the almost uniform praise it received), but I loved the performances by Terrence Howard and Tarji. P. Henson and the sweaty, grimy Southern atmosphere that drenched the script. I'm happy to say that Brewer has taken the best parts of his debut and substantially upped the ante. Despite its incendiary advertising campaign, Black Snake Moan is not nearly as sleazy and exploitational as it pretends to be, nor is it quite so infused with the gritty spirit of the Blues-with-a-capital-B as it wants to be; but it is highly entertaining, and it features two wonderfully crackling perfomances from Jackson and Christina Ricci. There's also an unnecessarily developed subplot with Justin Timberlake that pushes the movie five painful minutes past its natural conclusion; but whenever Jackson and Ricci are on screen together - and especially when they're joined by Jackson's guitar - the film stock is set ablaze.
In any case, I love tracing the roots of folk music (or inventing them, as those who've read my screenplay for Henry Lee might have guessed), and to that end, here's the original newspaper clipping that inspired the song, from the St. Louis Globe Democrat, circa Christmas 1895.
"William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee""
A pretty fascinating essay on the song's history can be found here.
February 21, 2007
Better Living Through Commentary Tracks
Continuing the strand of 2006 SXSW films to play at the Pioneer Theater in New York, Michael Tully's Cocaine Angel begins it engagement this evening. The film (which I first wrote about here) is a grimy little downward spiral that I'm looking forward to revisiting on the eminent DVD; but anyone in the Manhattan area, though, would do well to check it out on the big screen (my mom's going to New York in a few days; maybe I can convince her to give it a shot).
Yesterday I turned on the Duplass Brothers' commentary track on The Puffy Chair (which was released on DVD last week), and while I listened I put together a new bookshelf. This was one of those shelves that you buy at a store ready to be assembled, and I needed it because my books and DVDs were forming a tectonic crust on my floor. Now, I don't have any illusions about being a handyman; I'm okay at making things from scratch, but when it comes to following instructions and putting together prefabricated items, I'm actually pretty retarded. I usually give up halfway through, completely at a loss, convinced that whatever I'm trying to build has been manufactured improperly. My bed, my desk, my desk chair - all disasters! True to form, my new shelf took a turn in that direction, too, at about the point in The Puffy Chair where the fraternal unit plus one tried to swindle their way into a hotel room. As Jay Duplass was explaining how a somewhat revealing shot from this scene nearly landed them a restricted red-band trailer, I gently guided the various pegs into their corresponding chipboard orifices, hoping that of this union a beautiful cherry wood chattel would be born. But no, a complication as cruel and illogical as any MPAA ruling slammed against my hopes head on; the receptacles for the screws seemed to be too shallow, and the perpendicular conjunction of sideboards and slats refused to flush.
I tried my favorite quick fix - battery by mallet - and when that didn't work, I decided it was time to give up. But as was I looking at the malformed piece of furniture on the floor and listening to the charming and jovial and somehow soothing commentary issuing from the speakers (I think it was during the scene where the titular chair is upholstered under extreme duress) something clicked. And then a great many things clicked, one after the other, because I'd realized that the silver sockets on the slats needed to be rotated in a certain direction if they were to accept the full length of the sideboard screws into their steely interiors. Within a matter of minutes, the disjointed parts had become a glorious whole - a rather shaky hole, because I hadn't yet realized that those same sockets needed to be rotated back in the opposite direction to lock the various pieces together, but that was beside the point. As the Duplass Brothers talked about the serendipity with which they arrived at that bittersweet ending to their film, I pushed the shelf upright and looked at it in all its freestanding glory. I'd done it. And I didn't even have to ask my brother for help.
Then it was time to clear out some space for the shelf next to my entertainment center - no small task itself! I decided this would be a good time to listen to the commentary track on Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, which also came out on DVD last week. But perhaps that's a story best saved for another day.
February 17, 2007
Yen sent me the link to this gorgeous trailer for Hsiao-hsien Hou's new film, which is at this point called Ballon Rouge. Anyone know what that music is?
February 15, 2007
David Lynch's Hotel Room
The sooty, bloodstained heart of Inland Empire is the long monologue that Laura Dern delivers in the tiny damp room at the top of that long dark staircase. It's the scene, chopped up and stretched out across the three hour running time, which was the genesis of the film itself; in a recent interview with Daniel Nemat-Nejat, Dern revealed that, as far as she was concerned, the personae in this scene was her character: "To me, it was about this woman in trouble, a woman who is dismantling, and her emotional and abstract journey of trying to define a character for an audience, emotionally. The girls, I don’t know what other people think of them, but to me they’re these abstractions in her mind, what she’s feeling."
Multiple parallels can be drawn between Inland Empire and Lynch's other films (at this point, saying that it's similar to Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway is just redundant), but watching Dern's monologue (an excerpt of which you can see here), and hearing of the particular sort of trouble she was in, I was reminded of a lesser known work: Hotel Room.
This was a three-part miniseries for HBO, produced by Lynch and Monty Montgomery; it was released on VHS in 1992, and these days can be found in specialty video stores or for high prices on eBay. I'd seen it once, about ten years ago, and for some time afterward I'd often list its third segment as one of the finest things Lynch had ever made. I tracked down a copy of it the other day, to refresh my memory, and found in it evidence of a prominent throughline stretching out in both directions, across Lynch's entire career.
Before I get into that, though, a brief primer on the piece itself. The series is set entirely in Room 603 of the Railroad Hotel in New York City, a motif that is established with an abstract montage of vintage footage, depicting a Manhattan high-rise being constructed (this opening sequence can be seen here), and introductory narration provided by Lynch himself:
For a millennium, the space for the hotel room existed, undefined. Mankind captured it, gave it shape and passed through. And sometimes, in passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.
Which is a rather high-faltutin' way to describe a fairly common anthological device - but it's in keeping with the interests of its creator, who's often professed his love for the phenomenon of interior space, and it sets up the one narrative conceit that separates this series from the infamous Four Rooms that would come along a few years later: each episode is set in a different time period. The first, Tricks, is set in 1969, and concerns two grizzled old acquaintances (Harry Dean Stanton and Freddie Jones) reminiscing with a prostitute (Glenne Headley). This episode was written by Barry Gifford and directed by Lynch (their second collaboration after Wild At Heart). Aside from the welcome presence of two of Lynch's most beloved company actors and a brief moment that combines sex and creepy sound effects, it's remarkably restrained, with the greatest emphasis being placed on Gifford's dialogue; for the most part, Tricks plays like a one-act play, with long takes and a proscenium implied by an undemonstrative lens. The same is even more true of the second episode, Getting Rid Of Robert, which Lynch actually had nothing to do with.Written by Jay McInerny and directed by Saturday Night Live's James Signorelli, it's a mildly twisted, mostly entertaining tale of a gold digging socialite (Deborah Karr Unger) waiting in the room with her friends for her boyfriend (Griffin Dunne) to arrive - so that, as implied by the title, she can inform him that he's history. Things go predictably awry, but not in any way that's terribly memorable.
This all changes the moment the final episode begins, as a blinding flash of lightning illuminates the pitch black hotel corridor (as seen in the image above) and the low sustenance of Angelo Badalementi's strings creeps into the soundtrack (the previous installments featured the sultry bass guitar lines that Badalamenti often used on Twin Peaks). We're back in the hands of Lynch and Gifford again, for an episode entitled The Blackout that is set during the actual 1937 power outage in Manhattan. In an introduction to a published teleplay, Gifford described the origin of this particular episode thusly:
Blackout was written in two days with the admonition from Messrs. Montgomery and Lynch that it be "something our grandmothers could watch." I told Monty that would not be a problem; I'll write the play, I said, you guys gag and tie up the old ladies."
Crispin Glover (in a strong and all too rare dramatic turn) and Alicia Witt (last seen in a Lynch film dancing ecstatically on the burning fields of Arrakis) star as Danny and Diane, a married couple from Oklahoma who have traveled to New York so that Diane can see a doctor. Her ailment isn't specified, although it doesn't take long to figure out that she suffers from some sort of dementia. She doesn't seem to know where she is, or what's going on; at times, she seems to be hallucinating, and at one point she screams out to her husband a line of dialogue sounds almost like it's plucked right from the next feature film Gifford and Lynch would write together:
I saw you on the other side and I yelled "Danny! Danny!" But it wasn't you.
This episode runs nearly twice the length of the previous ones, and is so different in tone and style that it feels like a completely separate project. Although it's still, in essence, a two-character play, Lynch's direction is anything but theatrical; it feels like one of his films, from the suffocating darkness to the extreme close-ups to the thick texture of the sound design (credited to the man himself) to a POV shot with a candle that prefigures the pointing finger following Laura Dern through Inland Empire. And it's scary, in that unspeakable way that Lynch always manages; an atmospheric dread, an ephemeral terror that builds to spontaneous breaking points. And then, at the end, the lights come back on and wash out Danny and Diane and room 603 itself in an ethereal white glow.
Before that happens, though, there's the slow, drawn out reveal of what is at the root of Diane's malady: she and Danny had a son who died, a little boy whom they affectionately call 'Dan-Bug.' This is what I was reminded of during that monologue in Inland Empire, in which Laura Dern's character eventually explains that she lost the the little boy she was carrying, but there was an additional detail in The Blackout that I'd forgotten about. The son died, yes, but more specifically, he drowned, accidentally, while his parents were having sex.
Sex is a terrifying thing in Lynch's films; pleasure and desire can never be enjoyed on their own terms because they are so intrinsically linked to the anxiety of parenthood. This is, after all, what Eraserhead was all about, but there's another frightening theme implicit in this; something to do with maternal guilt. It's there in Inland Empire, certainly, but let's look back further, to the Straight Story, in which Sissy Spacek's son perished in an accidental fire; to Wild At Heart and the abortion Lula's own mother forced upon her; to Dorothy Vallens' kidnapped son in Blue Velvet; to Eraserhead, where Henry's wife abandons the grotesque baby, and to The Elephant Man, where that baby grows up alone. It's a theme so prevalent that I'm sure it's been written about at greater length elsewhere; as it is, I'm a bit shocked that I've only just realized the depths to which it runs.
That The Blackout might be the crystallization of a particularly autobiographical strain in his oveure is trumped, somewhat, by the fact that Lynch didn't actually write it; but there's a reason he gravitated towards it, and gave it such precedence over the other episodes of Hotel Room, and it's a reason we're best left to puzzle over ourselves. During his Q&A in Austin last month, someone asked him about certain consistencies running throughout his work. Lynch asked for some examples and, upon hearing them, nodded (as if he'd never considered this possibility before) and agreed that the parallels were there, if one wanted to draw them, but that he never thought about them; any artist's work is inherently reflective of elements in their own lives, and certain motifs might resultingly recur, but he never proactively sets out to explore them, or to explain them afterwards.
A few years ago, it was rumored that Lynch had acquired the rights to The Blackout and Tricks and was planning on releasing them through his website, as he's done with all the short films that previously were only available on degraded VHS tapes many times removed from their first generation. For the time being, that's still the only way to see Hotel Room (unless someone uploads it to YouTube, as has been done with Lynch's failed network series On The Air); but it's worth seeking out.
February 14, 2007
I locked picture on the new one (still untitled) last week; we recorded all of the dialogue and about fifty percent of the foley and added it to the picture; and I made the grave mistake of falling in love with the temp music I dropped in. It was Ennio Morricone's haunting Grace refrain from Oliver Stone's U-Turn. Alas, how will I ever devise an equal? Curtis has a pedal steel and a fiddle that I hope will assist towards that end.
It's snowing again!
February 13, 2007
Earlier today, Yen found a really great interview with Zoo director Robinson Devor in Radar Magazine.
And Matt Dentler links to this piece from the set of Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart, which shot in Austin for two days last week. My favorite bit: "...the crew packed up equipment, which remarkably did not include lights, though the cameraman ordered all the window blinds opened."
Meanwhile, with the export of some last minute OMFs a few hours ago, I think I've finished up all of my official editorial duties on Ciao. I'm sure something else could come up at some point in the future, once we show the film to people and actually get some feedback and start second-guessing ourselves; but barring that, I'm through. Now it'll be a race to see which of Yen's new films gets seen first; Coda (the short, which we just finished the color correct on) or Ciao. Either way, audiences win!
Posted by David Lowery at 3:07 PM
February 12, 2007
Mouchette and Au Hasard Bresson
A year or two ago, I was doing research for a comprehensive essay on the dialectics of two of my favorite filmmakers, Bresson and Bergman (a project that, as with most of my attempts at academic discourse, went mysteriously unfinished), which lead me to John Simon's infamous interview with Bergman, in which the director said this of Bresson's work: "Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it."
Bergman, as anyone who's read anything by or about him might know, can be incredibly (and, in this case, humorously) pompous, and severe to a fault. That right there is a trait that separates him from Bresson, who maintains through his sparse form a sort of effervescence that, for all the misfortune in his films, buoys them past the mire of tragic expungence; there's none of the trenchant "dear diary" sensibilities that Bergman, god love him, revels in. Both filmmakers are, with qualifications, self-professed aetheists; but only one of them is comfortable with it, and it shows. And maybe I should get back to that essay, after all, because I'm degressing from the topic at hand, which is that Criterion has finally followed up their magnificent treatment of the Bresson picture Bergman hated with an equally outstanding release of the one he loved. Together, I'm pretty certain they comprise his finest work.
Mouchette was made a year after Au Hasard Balthazar and is commonly viewed as a sister film. In both, the relationship between humans and animals serves the same symbolic purposes - only the predominant perspective is switched - and Mouchette herself seems an extrapolation on Balthazar's Marie. Bresson has a gift for finding the dignity in the denizens and outcasts of society, and despite his famous austerity, he intimates a very evident, very sincere, very tender sense of compassion towards Mouchette, and towards the donkey, and to a certain extent his pickpockets and escaped convicts. Compassion, compounded with rigorous form, results, I think, in the grace which is so often mentioned in discussions of Bresson's films.
A quick and easy example is the last sequence of Mouchette; a shot entirely unsympathetic in composition but transformed through the gradual strains of music on the soundtrack (this instance is especially notable not just because Bresson so rarely used any sort of musical score, but because this shot has been optically extended to fit the music - watch the water rippling.
As with Balthazar, Mouchette has been rescued from the realm of jittery, murky VHS transfer; in fact, as is so often the case with Criterion discs, it probably looks better now than it did when it was first released. There 's a sturdy selection of supplementary materials, including the by now standard academic commentary track (this one from Tony Rayns), but the most valuable feature is the thirty-minute documentary Au Hasard Bresson, directed by Theodor Kotulla. The film was made during the production of Mouchette, and it consists of behind-the-scenes footage interspersed with an on-the-fly interview with Bresson himself. Much of what he has to say will be familiar to readers of his book, Notes On The Cinematograper (not the least of which being his belief that cinematography encapsulates not just the photography but the entire philosophy of film as an art form) but it's fascinating to see him explain his ideas while the crew is at work behind him, and even better when the camera follows him onto the set and watches as he composes his shots and directs the actors, and those same philosophies elucidated a second time, in practice.
Great filmmakers are generally studied and criticaly dissected vis-á-vis their finished works, so there's a bit of a deconstructive thrill in tracing the those studies back to their protozoan roots on the set, behind the camera, with grips and script supervisors standing by. It's hardly a rarity with modern filmmakers, who probably have their behind-the-scenes documentaries included in their production budgets, but in the case of a director like Bresson, who made films at a time when they were their were their own commodity, it's a particular treat to get such a candid and revealing look at the production.
There's a wonderful sequence in which Bresson works out a simple shot of Mouchette awakening, sitting up on the floor and then standing up against a wall. With on eye to the viewfinder, he repeatedly goes through the blocking with Nadine Nortier, gradually figuring out the composition of the shot, what purpose it needs to serve, what form will best accomplish that, while at the same time giving direction to his young actress, telling her to close her mouth, to close her mouth completely, to stand up more smoothly. His directions are incredibly precise: "Jean, are you framing her head or her elbow?" he asks his camera operator. "Or purposely not framing? That might be best. Make it half her head and half her hand." But what's so great about it - at least from the perspective of this admiring filmmaker - is that he's figuring it out on the spot!
All of this is underscored by a comment he makes in an interview a few moments later:
"In cinema, what matters is form, and it must be given priority. When composing a shot, the composition must express something even before the characters speak. The shot itself should embody the idea."
February 9, 2007
A Conversation With Jeff Lipsky
I watched Jeff Lipsky's Flannel Pajamas twice in a twenty-four hour period. The first time, at home, late at night, I resisted it. I was tired, or I wasn't in the mood for an indie relationship talkathon; I don't exactly remember what the reason was, but I watched it looking for something that would allow me to dismiss it, some evidence of melodrama, or indie quirkiness, or anything except what I actually got, which was a film so honest that it was impossible to deny. After it was over, I turned it off and mulled it over, and then went and found this article online, written by Lipsky himself. More than the movie itself, reading his own thoughts about it really got to me; and the next night I went back to watch it on the big screen, to give it the attention it deserved and see what I might have missed. And I missed a lot; a lot of the beautifully awkward moments, a lot of tender throwaway details; this is a film about little moments in a relationship, the ones that stand out amidst seismic emotional shifts. It's about falling into and out of love, and what it gets so painfully right is how quick and easy that seemingly impossible transition can be.
Almost exactly a year after to the day after Flannel Pajamas premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with Jeff Lipsky to discuss the film. I hadn't seen his previous directorial effort, Childhood's End, but I was certainly already a fan of the work he'd done in a different cinematic arena: he's a bit of an unheralded legend in the distribution field. Together with Bingham Ray, Lipksy founded the venerable October Films, through which he brough Mike Leigh's films to American shores. Before that, he worked for Samuel Goldwyn, and before that - well, he pretty much helped invent American independent film distribtion, under the watchful eye of his mentor, John Cassavetes.
We talked a lot about Cassavetes. Even after the interview was over, we were still talking about him. It was a little hard not to.
You've packed a lot of personal material into this film, but I've noticed on the film's website that you hesitate from calling it completely autobiographical.
Well, I'm not shying away from that. It is definitely a story that is rooted in autobiography. The writing of the script was inspired by my own short-lived marriage from 1989 to 1992, and in discussing over the ensuing decade with friends who were married or divorced what the circumstance were that lead to the demise or success of their relationships. And it was really ten years after the divorce, and it was as I was looking through an album of photographs from my wedding that I started recognizing how enchanted this relationship seemed to be, from the very first day we met, and I said, "I want to remember these things."
It was years before I could face up to the beginning of the relationship. I was jotting down notes and diary entries, and by the time I was finished it seemed like the outline of a script, especially in context of all that I had learned from my friends. I thought there was enough there to resonate with any audience who had ever been in a relationship. And I wanted to be completely honest. I realized that this was exactly the kind of film that was transformative for me. The four filmmakers in my life who most inspired me - John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman - generally made movies that illuminated the human condition, and that were love stories. My mentor was John Cassavetes - I mean, even his film The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie was a love story! It wasn't a departure from his other work. There was a lot of truth, there was a lot of pain, and a lot of love. And you know, I get off on Back To The Future and Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Eraserhead, but they don't touch me the way these other films do. So I thought if I could do semi-justice to these films through my own life experience, it would be great.
So, I'd say fifty percent of the film is reality, and fifty percent is total fiction, and one of the things I'm really excited about is that audiences respond most powerfully to scenes that are a complete fabrication, which I consider an artistic triumph. But it's all at the service of the heart of the film, which are two beautiful, flawed, imperfect, sexy, bold soulful people. I think that defines most of the people I know in real life, and I wanted to tell their stories. And I wanted to tell my story. I thought that it contained enough commonality to warrant painting a little picture.
You had something personal to say that other people could relate to.
Yeah. We had a mother and daughter in the editing room to see it and comment on it, and as soon as it was over they got in a raging argument over which character was to blame. That was music to my ears! At the lab in New York, where we did all our post produciton work, we had a sound glitch and a guy who had no clue about the movie as our sound technician. We had to reels four and five. He sits there with me in the screening room, and reel four starts, and fifteen minutes in - his fine tune ears are supposed to be discerning what's wrong, but he starts laughing uproariously. He says, "excuse me, I don't mean to laugh, but I've had that conversation with my wife." So you know, these are great moments of validation for me.
Do you know whether or not your ex-wife has seen the film yet?
I said until a couple of months ago that to the best of my knowledge she doesn't know the film exists. I haven't been in touch with her in six years. But I think the jig is up, because a few months ago, there was a screening at UCLA that I attended. As the professor was introducing the film, a guy on the other side of the theater was waving wildly at me. I waved back, thinking to myself "who is he?" After the screening, I was greeting some friends and this guy walked up to me and extended his hand and said, "oh my god, Jeff, it was so good! You should be so proud!" And I'm wracking my brain, and it finally dawned on me that he was the attorney that handled our divorce! His wife was my ex-wife's friend.
So that was the first hint that maybe word would be getting back to her. She now lives in London with her third husband and first child. We're trying to get into a London film festival, the Declaration Of Independence Film Festival. I hope they select the film, because if so it'll be the first opportunity she'll have to see the film. And I hope she comes and I hope she sees it, and I hope she respects what I tried to do, and what I hoped I've accomplished. I'm sure it'll touch a lot of nerves, but I think that in the end it's honesty will resonate with her.
You've said that the film would have failed if it were melodramatic. How do you, as a director, avoid melodrama?
Well, you do several things. One, you talk to your actors about avoiding the pitfalls of doing actorly scenes. There's a pivotal scene late in the movie where the fate of these two people are determined once and for all, and Julianne Nicholson's instinct was to shed tears. I said, "you have to fight that instinct; it is counter to real life, it is counter to your character." And she did it. It became a much more powerful or real moment, a moment you could interpret in any number of ways. It let the audience get into her thought process instead of being told what she was thinking.
Another example is that we have a wedding scene, a funeral, but I never show the couple getting married or the funeral service. One of the ways of avoiding melodrama is to avoid those cliches. I'm not interested in seeing something that we've seen a million time; I want to see what happens behind the scenes. I want to see those moments that we never hear about, that we never see. The unpredictable moments. How their relationship continues to unfold at the most surprising times.
I noticed that you did the same thing with the sex scenes. The film has a lot of nudity, but you always cut around the actual sex and focus on the before and after.
Humping is not in and of itself fabulously cinematic. I can rent porn if I want to see that. To me, what was critical to depicting the arc of a couple's relationship from the day it begins to the day it ends was embuing that relationship with an utter and total sense of honesty and naturalism. What takes me out of a movie is when you have two lovers in bed together with blankets up to their lower lip, and then one of them decides they have to go to the door or answer the telephone, and they take a sheet with them. It just takes me out of the movie. The other day, at a screening in Seattle I had a woman come up to me and say "I just wanted to thank you, because normally when there's nudity in a movie it's objectifying women, but you show penises!" And I said that's because in real life, that's what you see! And in one of the scenes audiences have been responding to, when Stuart coerces Nicole to undress in a near violation of her psyche, she at least tries to turn the tables on him - about an hour later, after we skip over the copulation to a scene that I think is far more revealing. It's far more explicit, and you have to show him in his complete nakedness or else her line won't have the same heft to it.
I understand that the cut which got into Sundance was a good deal longer, and that you then made some trims to it. Was that mandated by the festival, or were you just not finished with the film when you were accepted?
It wasn't a concession to Sundance. I don't think there's a definitive answer to that question. The history of it is...I have final cut, but if I have any respect for my collaborators, in this case my editor, before I even set foot in the editing room, she gets eight days to edit the entire movie. We shot thirty five hours of film. It's a 146 page script, and we shot everything in the script. She goes in from page one to page 146 and basically slams a version of the film together.
And boy, are young film technicians talented! During the shooting of the movie, I would take my script supervisor and whisper into her ear, "what's the running time of the film so far?" And when we finished and I asked her how long the film was, she said three hours and twenty minutes. So my editor finishes her cut, and I go in and ask her how long it is and she says three hours and twenty two minutes. I don't know how they do it! So we sat there and watched it and were both very excited about it. We did our first edit, she and I, and we cut twelve minutes out of it. And I sat there and I said, "well, I don't know what else we can cut out. It looks done to me!"
I had my producers come in - there were three producers and I respect all of them -and they would have a laundry list of suggestions. And I would rant and rave and scream and shout, and I had final cut. But then the next day I'd come into the editing room and say, "you know, let's just try some of these things." And you know, eight percent of those suggestions - either we acted upon, or we tried them and they didn't work, or they were just stupid, but a lot of their input was very valuable in shaping the film. At one time I thought the absolute final running time of the film was going to be between two hours and forty five minutes and three hours, and I saw no problem with that. But as people were getting nervous, I did a very cursory study and demonstrated for my producers that if you go through the top twenty grossing films of all time, the average running time is two hours and seventeen minutes. I said "you're wrong about the fact that Americans are impatient with long films." My philosophy has always been that a bad movie is too long at ninety minutes, and a good movie is too long at three hours.
Anyway, we got it down to two-forty five. We would bring audiences in, complete strangers, and ninety five percent said it was too long, but no one could agree what should come out! It was a very rich, very complex story, and it was wall to wall dialogue, and there was not one scene where there was not some information conveyed that was important, that was new. It was tough. And we got down to two and a half hours, and then we got down to two-seventeen, and each time I thought it was the final cut. Finally , I took a carving knife and got it down to two hours and four minutes. And then it got selected to the dramatic competition at Sundance, and it wasn't until I was sitting at Sundance watching the film for the first time that I thought, you know what? This is the best running time for the movie.
That said, a year after Sundance, I think that two hours and fourteen minutes might have been the perfect running time. Sometimes I look at the scenes we cut out, or describe the scenes we cut out, or talk to people who saw rough cuts and they ask what we cut out...the bottom line is, we cut fifty two scenes out of the movie, and only eleven of them were bad, and that was all my fault. The rest of them contained some of the best acting, the most raw emotional baggage, real insight into the characters...but the biggest most daunting challenge was maintaining a balance of sympathies between the two main characters.
But I'm hugely proud of what we ended up with. Some people have asked me about commerciality. They want me to put my distributor hat back on, and I explain that there's a complete bifurcation as far I'm concerned. I wouldn't be able to make good movies if I allowed any of what I learned in thirty three years of distribution to apply to writing and directing. As a distributor and a businessman, there are more questions I have to address before I make financial commitments, but as a filmmaker, I make movies for two people: me, and this woman in Germany. Nine years ago, when I made my first movie, and it was a low profile movie, a lower budget film, and I was very proud of it. It didn't get conventional distribution. Late in the game, I got a call from the Hamburg Film Film Festival. They flew me over and I introduced the film and everyone seemed to respond to the film. The Q&A went very well, and then they had to clear the theater. So I went out to the lobby with the festival director, and we were chatting, and this young twenty-something German woman came over to us and said to me, "Excuse me. I just wanted to tell you that yesterday I saw the new David Cronenberg movie, and it made me so angry I never wanted to see movies again. And now that I've seen your movie, I want to see movies again."
And if she had been the only human being on the face of the planet who ever saw my first movie, it would have been worth every dime it cost me to make it. How many people through artistic expression of any kind have the ability to influence the lives of a person halfway across the world? That's why I make movies. For me and that woman in Germany.
Do you still watch the film yourself?
Yeah. I've seen it two or three hundred times. We shot it for thirty days, and the principal location was the couple's high rise apartment, which at the time was my apartment, and from the time we were in the editing room, when I would watch the two of them, I would never recognize it as a place I lived. They immediately inhabited that place. It wasn't just the chemistry between them - it was the chemistry of all the people that worked on the film that believed in what we were trying to do. And now, frankly, when I watch the movie, I can't even believe that I wrote it. And I'll credit the actors more than anyone else. There was a remarkable triumvirate of trust from day one between Justin, Julianne and myself. But beyond that, with Rbecca Scholl who was masterful as Julianne's mother....I'm sorry, Julianne Nicholson and Rebecca Scholl give the two best female performances that you will see in a movie all year. Helen Mirren, bite me! Just pure performance. I have to pinch myself that I was the recipient of that kind of talent. Not to denigrate the men in the film!
You said a few minutes ago that you never think about distribution when you're directing, but was it working in distribution for so long what made you want to be a director?
I've wanted to make movies since the age of ten. Listen, we all have shitty childhoods. Mine was, for a variety of largely temporary and tranistory reasons, gruesome Movies were my refuge. It was so easy for me to escape into whatever was on the screen, whether it was a B monster movie or The Legend Of Lila Claire with Kim Novak or The Russians Are Coming by Norman Jewison. To me, that was the real world, and I wanted to be part of it. When I was ten years old, I applied to be an usher at the local theater and was told I was too young, so I wrote a letter to President Kennedy to complain, and got a letter back from the White House, referring me to the New York department of labor. Six years later, I got that job, and two years after that I was assistant manager.
Movies became part of my soul when I was seventeen years old and I saw John Cassavetes' Faces. I walked out of the theater in a daze. The following year, when I was a film critic for my college paper, his next movie came out, Minnie & Moskowitz. I didn't like it nearly as much, but I was determined to meet him. I set up an interview, and he befriended me! We spent two and a half hours together, and he quote me in the New York Times! There was Time Magazine, there was Newsweek, and there was Jeff Lipsky of the Nassau Community College. The day I met him was also the day I was invited to a press screening of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. It was December 11th, 1971. It was an amazing day.
Sounds like it!
I let the correspondence go. I was loving managing movie theaters, and in 1974 I read that a new Cassavetes film, A Woman Under The Influence, was in the New York Film Festival. I bought a ticket and I called him, and was like, "I don't know if you remember me," He was like, "Oh, Jeff, of course I remember you! What are you doing?" I said managing theaters, and as soon as he heard that, his ears perked up. Hollywood hated him and he hated Hollywood, and if they made him offers, they were rejected summarily - by him. So he said, "Come on in, you must know everything about distribution!" I didn't know anything about distribution, but he showed me posters and I met his producer Sam Shaw and he said, "Screw it, let's do it ourselves." I didn't want to be a distributor, but I thought if I could saddle up to John and help him out, it would accelerate the process by which I could make my own films, just like John's. I didn't realize it was going to take another twenty years, but I was determined to do it. And what happened was that a year or two after, we basically invented independent film. There was no independently financed art film that was nationally distributed by the filmmakers before that.
A couple years after I started, people like Michael Barker and Tom Bernard came aboard what was then called United Artists Classics - later Orion Classics, later Sony Pictures Classics - and the idea of getting involved in movies was just an inkling of an idea in the eyes of Bob and Harvey Weinstein. And no one wanted to be distributors; we all wanted to make movies. We all became very successful. Sometimes it was because we had great taste in movies, and sometimes it was because we were willing to humiliate ourselves in order to make sure these film played in every nook and cranny in America. But with success, you''re making a comfortable living, you get married. Some of them have kids, buy a house, have a mortgage, college tuitions...and I think there's a little bit of resentment in their lives. They're financially secure, and I feel badly about it, because there's no reason why they're not willing to do what I've done and take a roll of the dice. Realize that dream. My film school was being able to know and work beside John Cassavetes. Later, the same was true of Mike Leigh and his producer Simon Channing Williams. And even though I spent far less time with people like Fassbinder or Godard, just having met them and being able to work with them was my film school. They went to film school, too. Michael and Tom have been going to the Pedro Almodovar film school for many years now; there's no reason why they shouldn't do it.
It's incomparable. It's a rare privilege. Everyone wants to make movies; very few people get to. I've been able to do it twice, and I do not take lightly the advantages that I've had. I'm determined to do it again, and I'm going to do it no matter how much I have to grovel, beg, borrow, or steal. I have more stories to tell, and I just think of that woman in Germany...
It sounds as if Cassavetes hired you the same way he hired his camera or sound people. People with no experience...
He would say that the only rule with distribution was that whatever the experts suggested to us, do it the opposite way. With The Woman Under The Influence, Peter Falk plays a blue collar worker, so John said there was a huge black audience for this movie. So we booked it at the Apollo Theater. We're the only art film that has ever showed at the Apollo Theater. We only had two shows, because after the first show with only one person in the audience, the film buyer begged us to let him pull the movie. But that's what we did. Leave no stone unturned. I booked it into a drive in theater, and the theater, because they always showed double features, decided that they would book it with John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara in Machine Gun McCain.
I would have loved to see that double feature.
Believe me, they weren't doing it to be clever. They were doing it to be dumb. But you know what? It did eleven thousand dollars worth of cars that week.
From a directing standpoint, what were some of the things you learned in this John Cassavetes film school?
Some very fundamental things. I would ask him how he wrote such vivid but real dialogue, and he explained that it was like a reverse pyramid. You have two people, and you start out with a monosyllabic line of dialogue. He said, you know what? When people are talking to each other, they're never saying what they're thinking. It's your job to figure out what the other person's thinking, and if you start out with utter simplicity, you can create that reverse pyramid, and by the time you're up at that complex level, you've got people in the palm of your end.
On top of that, being on the set of Killing Of A Chinese Bookie...his reverence for actors was such that I don't think in his life he said the word cut. What he would do is they would say the lines, and then John would keep his actors rolling in case they had something interesting to say. It was a love affair. A love affair with the written word. The man wrote hundreds of unproduced scripts. It wasn't that his morning ablution was that he would come in at seven and write until ten and then have breakfast. He would come in in the morning and have to give himself a mind enema of this panoply of ideas that would have entered his head between the time he left his house on Woodrow Wilson Drive and the time he arrived in Beverly Hills at the office. When distribution for John was waning and it was down to me and John and his secretary and one other person, he would come in, drag his secretary into his office and dictate scripts. That's how he wrote, because he never wrote longhand and never typed. And about an hour later, he would come into my office, fervently excited, and say "Jeff, Jeff, we've got some new pages, come on in!" And he'd drag us into his office. She would have ten freshly typed pages, and I'd read everything, the narration, his direction and the dialogue. And he'd be pacing around the room. listening, and if I missed a word, he'd correct me. He'd just dictated this thing out of his head an hour earlier!
What I also learned was that once he befriended you, you'd have to kill his firstborn for him to forsake you. When it came to friendship, he sponged off everyone around him, and that's how he learned how to write real people. He loved people. He loved old people. He saw the beauty in senior citizens and the elderly. I think that's vivified in Opening Night, or in that he'd always cast his mother or Gena's mother in his films. I think he recognized the beauty and wisdom of people of any generation, and it was palpable.
One of the greatest days of my life...there was this guy named Meade Roberts. He was a hanger-on in Los Angeles, he must have known John from when they were in New York together. He let himself go, he was in horrible shape, and people would just eschew him as an intimate. People were just stand-offish about this homunculus of a man, but John just stuck by this guy. One day he comes in and gives John a 400 pages script called The Garden Of Allah. And John, he said "Let's do a reading. I'll get every star in Hollywood. Call Peter Bogdonovich, we'll do a reading at his house on Sunday and I'll cater it." At the end of the day, he comes over to me and says "Jeff, why don't you come to the reading on Sunday?"
So I show up. I walk in. It's me, John, Gena, Peter Bogdonovich, Buck Henry, Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Ben Gazzarra, Amy Irving...I'm missing one or two. Unbelievable actors. We've all got a copy of a script. John had ordered tons of food. And it was an all-day instructional course for me on acting. A master class on acting. This wasn't going to an acting school where Sydney Pollack comes in and tells you how he directs actors; this was watching the cream of the crop interact with each other in a completely informal but passionate environment. That's what I got out of John Cassavetes. I still to this day don't know why I was invited, why I was there, but it was one of the most informative, inspiring epiphanies I've ever had.
February 6, 2007
Too Many Films, For Real
I've always had this problem where, when I witness a truly exquisite example of the female form, it doesn't inspire in me the traditionally masculine, instinctively aroused response; it makes me want to go and do a bunch of sit-ups. Likewise, when I saw this morning the perfectly refined lineup of films at SXSW, it didn't make me finally pony up to buy my badge; it just made me want to work even harder on my own films.
I already knew about a few of the titles that went public today; AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain About A Son, Mike Tully's Silver Jew, Aaron Katz' Quiet City (the latter of which has a gorgeous new trailer), Ti West's Trigger Man and the final cut of Hannah Takes The Stairs are all already at the top of my must-see list. Joining them are Sundance films like Zoo, Smiley Face, The Devil Came On Horseback, and The Great World Of Sound (but, alas, no Teeth), midnight selections Them, Black Sheep and The Signal, and about one hundred more. And then, of course, there are the shorts programs, which haven't been announced (although I'd wager that a few people I know will have their work showcased therein), and all the out-of-nowhere films that I'll wander into blindly and fall in love with.
February will be my last quiet month for quite a while. A week after the festival ends, I'll be on a plane to Germany. From there I'll be flying to Italy, and who knows where else after that. Hopefully, I'll get lost at least once. And then, when I get back, it'll be time to kickstart some pre-production on my new feature length effort. It's still hopefully one of two, but I'm not going to get too far ahead of myself just yet...
February 4, 2007
Ciao In Focus
Ciao is profiled in the winter issue of Filmmaker Magazine, right alongside Joe's Hannah Takes The Stairs.
Mary Glucksman's In Focus column isn't available online, but you can click over to good friend Stacy Schoolfield's article on self distribution, (one of a series of four, all worth reaing), as well as Jamie Stuart's excellent piece entitled Are We There Yet?, a chronology of high definition evolution. We're close enough, as far as I'm concerned - as of two weeks ago, I've finally left miniDV (and tape, too) behind for good.
On a pragmatically personal note, if anyone out there has my phone number and feels that I should have theirs in return, please give me a call or an e-mail. My mobile had an intimate encounter with some concrete last week; I replaced it this morning, and am now going around trying to track down all the numbers I never bothered to back up.
February 2, 2007
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 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.