Monday, May 31, 2010
Why were they so good at it? Because of their training. As journalists, they would first spend hours transcribing actual conversations, whether it be in court, or in the state house, or on the street, accurately enough to not get sued. Then they would have to boil all that talk down to just the juiciest, pithiest exchanges. Hitchcock said movies were just life with the boring bits cut out. Well, that’s even more true of journalism.
I don’t know of a single film school that demands its students take a journalism course, though they all should. It takes most writers one or two scripts to get past the problem of “these people don’t talk like real people”, and most writers never stop hearing that “they all talk like each other.” Characters need to have not only conflicting points of view, but also unique patterns of speech. Ideally, everybody will put their sentences together differently, which is incredibly hard to write. The best way to learn it is to transcribe some real conversations.
If you’ve got Digital Cable, and most people do these days, you may never have checked out channels 100-200. They tend to be oddball sister-networks to those found in the lower 100. And they burn through a ton of content, so they’re kind of a gold mine. Reality shows on the lower channels tend to be overly scripted. Don’t try to copy the dialogue from “Celebrity Rehab” because it was probably written by a schmuck screenwriter just like yourself. But up in nosebleed channels, they can’t afford to script their reality shows. They actually point a camera and let people talk.
Writing a cop drama? Well The Biography Channel has a really well-made show called “The Interrogators” which is literally just fly-on-wall footage of police interrogations. Writing about war? The Military Channel has shows where they cut together actual footage from actual battles and you can hear everything! It used to be that you had to put yourself in danger as a war correspondent to hear this sort of stuff, and you couldn’t rewind to make sure you got everything. Even on the more popular channels, there are shows that are less scripted than others. If you’re writing about young people, stay away from “Jersey Shore”, but there’s another MTV show called “True Life” which seems to show unprocessed teen talk.
So, good news: Anybody can figure out how to write dialogue as well as a journalist these days, without ever leaving your couch. All you need is the willingness to sit there feeling silly transcribing reality TV.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Saturday, May 29, 2010
It’s not like they didn’t have committees back then—if anything, they had even more fingers in the pot than we do today. But each studio was making 50 or more movies a year, so some of those movies could be more daring. At the top of the industry, each studio would make a few “prestige” movies each year, which were intentionally allowed to be lose money in exchange for bragging rights. And then you had the bottom of the scale, where directors were allowed to do whatever they wanted because “B” movies didn’t have to sell their own tickets, they just piggybacked on “A” movies. These two extremes tended to produce the best movies at the time, and they’re still considered the greatest American movies ever made.
These days, movies are much more overcooked and bland because, in both Hollywood and independent filmmaking, every film now has independent producers, which makes each one a self-contained business venture, which means that someone’s personal pocketbook is at stake every time, and usually several people’s. It’s much harder for any film to take a risk since losses can no longer be amortized across a slate of less risky fare. So fewer gems get made. The golden age is long gone.
So what is to be done? Re-create the studio system? That’s not going to happen. The safety net can’t ever be stitched together again. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Francis Ford Coppola has a famous, rudely-stated quote in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, shot on the set of Apocalypse Now: “To me the great hope is that now these little video recorders are around and people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form.”
We’ve gotten much closer to realizing Coppola’s idle speculation today, but it’s shocking how far away we still are. HD home cameras can now look practically as good as film and YouTube has democratized distribution, so that girl in Ohio now has the tools she needs in a way that 1979 Coppola couldn’t have predicted. But we’re still waiting for her. I really can’t name a single scripted YouTube viral hit that doesn’t involve anyone speaking directly to the camera. But surely it must be coming.
And that’s what is finally going to liberate film from the committee. What if you could make a professional looking feature and distribute it for $1000? What if we filmmakers, like painters, could discard 25 canvasses before we ever tried to sell one? What happens when art-by-committee is no longer an economic necessity? We’re waiting to find out…
Friday, May 28, 2010
Why are screenwriters in such a weak position? We like to pretend that it’s because Hollywood is run by philistines with no appreciation of our art. But let’s admit it: It’s a simple matter of cost. If it cost one million dollars (or occasionally 500 million dollars) to paint each painting, or write each novel, or stage each play, then those would be done by committee too. Painters earn their freedom by buying their own canvas and paint. Every movie, on the other hand, costs a fortune, and if it’s not your fortune, then it’s someone else’s fortune. And nobody parts with a fortune easily.
You’re asking someone to spend millions of dollars to realize your art. Of course, you may be independently wealthy, allowing you to finance your own movie out of pocket. In that case, you can write whatever story you want to write. Otherwise, you’ll have to re-write your feature dozens of times to satisfy everybody who works for the unwieldy conglomerate that’s paying for it. It’s no fun, but you do have to admit that it kind of makes sense.
There’s just one problem: Can a committee make art? The knee-jerk answer is no, but anyone who has studied the history of film knows that, against all odds, it happens. But it’s getting harder to do every year, though there is hope in the future, which is what I’ll discuss next time…
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Years: 1978-1980, 18 hour-long episodes
Creators: Ian Mackintosh
Stars: Roy Marsden, Ray Lonen, Jerome Willis, Elizabeth Bennett
Writer: Ian Mackintosh
The Story: When their own spies get stranded inside Russia, the Norweigans force both the British and the Americans to launch competing rescue attempts in order to compete for a commercial contract. Marsden turns venomous when he realizes that he’s being jerked around, especially when things go wrong behind the iron curtain.
- This show has a great backstory: As the legend goes, Mackintosh was able to pack the show full of real dirt because he had been a real spy, and everybody wondered why MI-5 let him get away with it. Then, after three seasons, Mackintosh's small plane disappeared under murky circumstances! He wrote every episode, so they had no choice but to cancel the show. It certainly makes for a juicy story, whether or not its implications are true!
- I’m one of those who always suspect that the real political world is stranger and nastier than we can possibly imagine. “24”, even with all its absurdities, seemed to me like a more accurate representation of life at the White House than the idealistic depiction on “The West Wing”. This one is a much more grounded show than “24”, and it’s got an even more jaundiced view. This is one of the few shows to seriously explore how down and dirty politics can get, and it’s a lot of fun to watch in a bare-knuckle sort of way.
- Roy Marsden is so good here that you wonder why he never became a movie star. Of course, it shoudn’t be that surprising, because his performance most reminds me of another great three-piece-suit-wearing order-barking TV boss, Daniel J. Travanti on “Hill Street Blues”, and he never got movie roles either. I guess they both knew that they’d found their calling behind those desks.
- Every episode, you get so wrapped up in the personal and political agendas, that you don’t notice how suspenseful the actual spy story has become until the end—which is entirely the point. A lot of missions go wrong, and the body count is high, another all-too-realistic fact of the spy world that it’s shocking to see portrayed on TV.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Years: 39 half hour episodes from 1960-61, then 47 hour-long episodes from 1964-68
Creators: Ralph Smart and Brian Clemens
Star: Patrick McGoohan
Writer: Jo Eisinger
The Story: Drake travels to the middle east to retrieve a casual high-society spy who is about to flee. While there, he has to deal with a disgruntled deep cover agent (played by Donald Pleasence!) who complains endlessly about his unpaid expenses.
- This show didn’t have a huge budget but it always looked like a million bucks thanks to clever cutting. They had access to thousands of hours of BBC travelogues and they skillfully intercut McGoohan with that footage.
- This show was much closer to LeCarre than Fleming. The scene where a Soviet agent pulls a gun on Drake is truly heartbreaking. The killer has the gun, but he’s pleading with his old friend from the other side: “Sonia went home to see her father. I begged her not to. She never came back. It’s just what they were waiting for. Now they have Sonia, and I must do what they say!” Drake knows that his heart isn’t in it and walks away, daring him to shoot. Not exactly “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”!
- And it becomes all the more shocking when Pleasence casually reveals two scenes later that he had the Soviet killed for no good reason! Drake is horrified, but what he can do? Well, he can quit, of course, but we all know where that would lead him…
- In these early episodes, they were trying to market the show to Americans, so they had Drake working for the UN and getting his orders in Washington. Nevertheless, those episodes didn’t make it on the air here. When they brought the show back after the Bond craze hit, it was unapologetically British. Ironically, only then did it sell to America, where it aired on CBS. McGoohan never had to change his enigmatic accent, because he was born in the U.S. but raised in Britain and Australia.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Paris society wife Audrey Hepburn finds that her lousy husband has been murdered, and now four of his co-conspirators are after her, convinced that she has the money they all stole together. She meets handsome Cary Grant who offers to help, but he, too, is not what he seems. This movie shows how to do twists right. Each time Grant is caught in a lie, he drops a major twist which completely re-sets our perspective. He even gets a new name each time, so he goes through four completely different identities over the course of the movie, and he switches back and forth from hero to villain more times than that.
But here’s the remarkable thing: Each new explanation changes everything we thought we knew, but each one is still a reasonable explanation for everything we’ve seen since the beginning of the movie. There’s nothing worse than the twist that seems satisfying, until we think back to earlier in the movie and say “Wait, then why would he have done that??”
Here’s an example: Joe Carnahan’s gritty indie thriller Narc from 2000 had a lot of style and great performances, but I thought that it was ruined by a twist that required too much amnesia on our parts. If you haven’t seen the movie, and you still intend to, you should be warned that I’m about to SPOIL the ending:
Ray Liotta is an undercover narc who may have killed his partner. Jason Patric helps him “investigate” the partner’s death while keeping an eye on Liotta himsef. In the finale, we find out the truth: Liotta was there when his partner committed suicide, and so he mounted this entire investigation to make it look like an unsolved homicide, because a suicide would mean that the partner’s family couldn’t get his full pension. There’s just one big problem: about thirty minutes early, there was the obligatory scene where the chief wanted them to just drop the case, and Liotta insisted they keep it open! Why would he do that??
If you’ve seen the movie, you can correct me if I interpreted those scenes wrong, but it definitely seemed like a case to me where they came up with a twist that reversed our current expectations, but didn’t fit with everything we’d seen before. They should have hired Peter Stone!
Monday, May 24, 2010
Director: Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper)
Writer: Peter Stone, based on a story by Walter Ericson
Stars: Gregory Peck, Diane Baker, Walter Matthau, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston
The Story: In the middle of a power outage, a Manhattan executive suddenly realizes that he’s not sure where he’s been for the last two years. When he discovers that there are people trying to kill him, he hires a P.I. to help him figure it out. He soon realizes that he is the lynchpin of a vast conspiracy centered on an aerospace giant.
How it Came to be Underrated: I mentioned how The Red House was hurt by entering the public domain, but this is a good example of how the opposite can happen. The movie has a lot of the same appeal as Stone’s previous movie Charade, but that movie was re-discovered in the ‘80s because it was in the public domain and widely available on VHS. This one, on the other hand, was poorly distributed by its rights-holder. It was briefly available on VHS but then it was out of print for years.
Why It’s Fun:
- There’s something so post-modern about amnesia movies. The hero doesn’t remember his past life and feels as if he was invented from whole cloth when the movie began, which is, of course, true. As his friends try to convince him otherwise, the hero remains dubious and it’s hard not to be on his side. We know he’s right. These movies, if done cleverly, force us to question our own readiness to accept narrative conventions, then re-build our acceptance as the hero finds a “better” explanation—but the disquiet remains.
- The movie turns on a clever insight into human nature: If we can’t do something, like recall a memory, then it doesn’t register in the brain as a disability but rather a dislike. When people ask Peck certain questions, he gets his back up—“What right do you have to ask me that?”—which keeps him from admitting that he doesn’t have the answer. It’s like kids who need glasses but just assume that they don’t like to read. Unfortunately, it’s an instinct that often keeps sick people from realizing they need help.
- This was Stone’s most serious movie, but the dialogue is still witty and brisk. As usual, nobody did better with his words than Matthau, though we see way too little of him in this one.
- The movie is way ahead of its time in terms of its blandly evil global-corporation villains, who use a utopian-sounding think tank as a front for their ever-expanding profit-seeking. They sound just like BP when their shill calmly explains, “I can’t respect any legality that would impede progress.”
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In Stone’s ouvre, this was bookended by two great Stanley Donen spy-comedies, Charade and Arabesque. Stone’s last great screenplay was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, then he moved on to Broadway.
How Available Is It?: It’s on a bare-bones but nice-looking DVD.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Extrapolated Dimwit!
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Director: John Schlesinger
Writer: Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Robert Lindsey
Stars: Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, David Suchet, Lori Singer
The Story: The true story of an ex-seminary student who gets a job as a data analyst working for a CIA contractor. When he realizes that the CIA is routinely undermining democracy abroad, even in U.S.-allied countries like Australia, he decides to start selling info to the Soviet Union in a misguided attempt to restore global balance. In order to ferry info to the Soviet embassy in Mexico, he recruits a drug dealing buddy, who quickly screws it all up.
How it Came to be Underrated: Hutton had already won a well-deserved Oscar for Ordinary People and this film showed that he could be great in adult roles as well, but he mysteriously disappeared off the list of serious actors after this. For that matter, Sean Penn didn’t get a lot of good work in the late ‘80s either. Penn eventually worked his way back into the A-list, but Hutton never did.
Why It’s Great:
- In many classic spy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, the whole goal is to expose the conspiracy to the New York Times. But this movie is willing to admit that in real life, that does little good. As Hutton says, “It’s already public. You can’t get any more public than what happened in Chile. People still don’t believe we engineered that.” We’re never remotely sympathetic to Hutton’s solution, but we also see that he had no legitimate outlet for his anger.
- That said, this movie has a very different vibe than most “nefarious CIA” movies, exemplified by Hutton’s first day on the job monitoring satellites, when his jingoistic boss turns on the jumbo paper shredder and starts pouring tequila into it to mix margaritas. They then proceed to play Risk all day, oblivious to the parallels between what’s happening on the board and what info is passing through their machines. Perversely, the general air of frivolity makes the wickedness of it all that much more believable.
- Once Hutton’s decision is made, the second half of the movie gets stolen by the interaction between Penn’s drug dealer and Suchet’s Soviet attaché, whose scenes together are delightfully strange. Penn ties himself in ethical knots that expose the absurdity of the situation: At first he won’t betray his country, but when he gets caught with drugs, he decides that he has to commit espionage after all, for money, because he has too much moral turpitude to rat on his fellow dealers. Huh?
- Fair warning: panic will start to set in when you hear a painful new-age jazz score start to kick in over the opening credits, but don’t worry, Schlesinger barely uses it.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Other great early ‘80s films about Americans running afoul of the CIA in Latin America include Salvador and Missing.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, but this is the sort of film that calls out for a Special Edition.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: China Too!
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
Max Huffman exasperates me. He’s a 16 year-old kid in North Carolina who produces an absolutely brilliant webcomic called Mocktopus. You would expect a internet star that young to be aw-shucks adorable maybe, or strangely earnest, or unintentionally funny, or really dirty-minded... But what’s really shocking is not just that the kid’s sense of humor is professional level, but that it’s so understated and sublime. The strips are deadpan, ironic and cynical. It really freaks me out. Often there are jokes about jokes in a sort of meditative way. How has he even had exposure to some of these outmoded tropes, much less the sort of over-exposure that parody requires, much less the time and wisdom to become reflective about that over-exposure?
Also: a disturbing number of jokes about drunkenness. One would naïvely hope that he wouldn’t have enough exposure to that topic to get clever about it. Alas, clever he is:
I’ve been grabbing my favorites off the site for a while, preparing to write this testimonial, but I went back to the site to see if there was a new one and I got a shock! Huffman has human weaknesses after all—He’s on hiatus because his computer is broken! He’s raising money through Kickstarter, so go help him out!
Okay, one more:
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Directors: Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Writers: Panama and Frank, with songs by Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn
Stars: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker
The Story: In a medieval forest, a clown does what he can to help a Robin Hood type outlaw who is trying to restore the true king. He gets his big chance when they replace the usurper king’s jester and infiltrate the castle. Once inside, he has to court a princess, fight off a mesmerizing lady-in-waiting, and duel a duke.
How it Came to be Underrated: Kaye’s movies were popular at the time, and he’s vaguely well-regarded today, but for some reason he lacks the reputation of the other great clown-geniuses, such as W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers. This is right up there with the best of their movies. It’s a masterpiece.
Why It’s Great:
- Why don’t all critics embrace Kaye today? Partially because he indulged so much in no-longer-fashionable puns and linguistic gymnastics, especially the fast-talking songs written by his brilliant wife Sylvia Fine. (“Those who try to tangle with my derring-do/ Wind up at the same angle as herring do!”) But Kaye could make a tongue-twister as elegant as a Buster Keaton flip.
- We all know Angela Lansbury and you may recognize Glynis Johns from movies like Mary Poppins where she played the mom. What a treat here to see these two great comediennes before they were consigned to matronly roles, busting out of their bodices, flirting up a storm, and generally kicking ass.
- People cut spoofs a lot of slack, which make the magnificent production values here all the more impressive. This movie works as a comedy and a worthy follow-up to movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood—it even has its own final duel with Basil Rathbone that’s just as thrilling. The impressive castle scenes rival big-budget medieval hits of the time like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table, which seem tacky and stagy today.
- One thing that this movie proves is that comedies are funnier when the hero isn’t completely incompetent (as they tend to be in movies today). Kaye finds himself in a situation over his head, but it’s not one that he is totally unprepared for. We understand his strengths and his weaknesses and we anticipate which situations he might be able to get out of and which ones we know he can’t. A clown who can’t cut it as a revolutionary becomes a jester who has to be a spy. His skills will come in handy, but they will be insufficient until they are pushed to the limit. That’s so much more interesting than a movie about, say, a drunken stable boy who has to pretend to be a jester, and just fakes it all.
- The story becomes very complex but the screenplay is a masterpiece of clarity. We know what every character wants and how their goals conflict, and our brain does somersaults in advance whenever we see that two conflicting agendas are about to collide. We know what will go wrong whenever someone snaps their fingers. We know when Kaye’s gotten the rhyme wrong. (Say it with me now: “The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”)
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another great light-hearted swashbuckler-spoof from the ’50s was Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate. Kaye’s biggest hit was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: When I’m President…
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010
Thriller writers love to complain about cell phones. It’s now impossible to write a thriller, so they say, because rescue is always just a phone call away. Of course, there are ways around this problem… no battery, no signal, phone gets destroyed, etc., but each one of them has become a cliché, as the above video amply demonstrates.
But if you find yourself sweating over how to cut off cell phone access, then you’ve got a bigger problem. If your hero only needs to make a call to get out of trouble, then, by definition, they’re not the only person who could solve this problem, which means it’s not really their problem. “Wrong place at the wrong time” is too little to hang your movie on. If there’s a cop out there who would be better at solving the problem, then we should be watching a movie about that cop.
There needs to be a deeper reason why your hero is the only one who can solve this problem. Calling the cops should not be an option, whether or not they have a cell phone. Of course, most of the traditional reasons why a hero might not call the cops have become clichéd too: no one will believe them, or they’re on a revenge trip, or they’ve been accused of the crime themselves, or the cops are crooked, or it’s the perfect crime, etc… But these, at least, have become clichéd for a good reason—these clichés personalize the problem and put the hero in a position where they and they alone have to solve it. As opposed to contrived cell phone issues, which feel tired and emphasize the fact that the hero doesn’t have any pressing need to take care of it themselves.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Alan Bennett, based on the book by John Lahr
Stars: Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Vandess Redgrave, Frances Barber, Julie Walters, Wallace Shawn
The Story: Biographer John Lahr reconstructs the story of swinging ‘60s London playwright Joe Orton and his long-suffering lover Kenneth Halliwell, who pursue fame, danger and each other over the course of an ill-fated fifteen-year relationship.
How it Came to be Underrated: Frears turned out so many great movies in such a short amount of time in the ‘80s, and they were so unapologetically British, that America didn’t notice what he was doing until he already had a nice body of work.
Why It’s Great:
- This story is set at a time when homosexuality was vigorously oppressed in England, but Frears has no interest in presenting his characters as sainted victims: This is a true story about two guys who happened to personify every negative gay stereotype: they were promiscuous, neurotic, snotty, violent, and on and on. But Frears knows that he doesn’t need to “humanize” anyone. With his usual self-assured swagger, he makes these two more and more sympathetic with each tragic flaw.
- In fact, the movie has my all time favorite “fall in love” scene. All too often, someone walks into a room and our hero falls suddenly head over heels and we think—really? Why her? Why now? What is their special connection? It’s not enough to just show her flipping her hair. All the harder then, to write a believable scene in which a heretofore straight young man suddenly falls in love with a fat, balding male classmate! Here’s how they do it: They’re students at RADA, doing improv. They’re told to pass around an imaginary cat. Everybody pretends to merely pet it, until Molina gets it. He acts uncomfortable holding it, then he develops an affection for it—then suddenly it scratches him with its imaginary claw. His eyes go dead and he pitilessly wrings its neck, then hands its limp body to the next classmate. Cut to Oldman: instantly smitten. And so are we.
- One of the ways that the movie builds sympathy is by using a non-linear structure that allows likable moments to be front-loaded. We get the story in the order his biographer reconstructs it, and, as always, the more sordid secrets come out last. That works well for the structure because we come to care early on before the more alienating details can come out.
- There are so many little masterful touches from Frears: We see time passing in form of a collage of magazine clippings slowly filling their walls. Little visual and aural cues let us know when the overlapping narratives being assembled connect up. Frears breezes through fifteen years deftly by letting the imagery tell the story.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Every time Oldman chews the scenery today, I try to remind myself how good he was in early efforts like this and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He used to be so relaxed and natural and charming!
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Purple Monster Strikes!