Thursday, October 1, 2009

Filmmaking Theory - Director Pitch

I was born with a strong visual sense -- it springs into action for me whenever I read any kind of good dramatic material. I know the language of film, how to make shots go together, to create atmosphere, emotion, tension, drama, suspense, and make the audience feel they are there - in the scene, in the middle of the action.

I developed my own filmic style - realistic, intense, dynamic, atmospheric - with influences from Ridley Scott, John Frankenheimer, Hitchcock.

I believe it is very important to establish dramatic integrity - usually involving seemingly ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, so the audience can believe it, and put their feet vicariously in the character's shoes.

Suspense and action sequences need to be properly built up to - you need to create rising anticipation - even a "great" action scene doesn't really work for the audience if it's lacking good dramatic context. They're just left watching stuff blow up or whatever without being emotionally involved.

Movies at their best are all about intimacy and passion - communicating passion and determination, whether it's epic or small scale. Even in a fight or chase scene it's important the audience sees and feels the characters' minds working -- using well-placed quick close-ups of the characters' faces as they decide to go after someone, or throw a punch, or turn the steering wheel to take a dangerous curve --
Feeling that gritty determination from the characters involved makes an action sequence much more dramatic.

PRE-VISUALIZATION: I know how to design for the shoot and edit. I don't start by going through some long technical shot-list process. I go right to storyboarding, because visuals come naturally to me - angles, compositions, framing, image size, the order of the shots, which can then be played with - edited - on paper. Shot lists can then be developed from the storyboard for scheduling purposes.

SHOOTING: It's all about coming in prepared. Getting everyone on the same page. Knowing how to make adjustments when necessary. Like Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, I prefer to shoot few takes, to keep it fresh. Get it done, and move on. Two cameras, if possible. Get dialog scenes done relatively quickly so more time can be spent on action scenes, which naturally need more complex staging and camerawork.

CAST: I strive to create an alternate reality for the cast, in designing the environment/atmosphere of the story for them on the set. I want them to feel they can try things, take risks. I communicate enthusiasm, commitment to the vision, create trust. The actors know I will protect them, encourage them, collaborate, let them know where the boundaries are. Make the actors feel comfortable and safe - in a dramatically dangerous place. And know that what we create together will be consistent, of a piece, and that the work will be protected.

With dark material, the actors need to go where the material demands. They need to live it. This takes a lot out of them. They get beat up in the process. Need a long shower at the end of each day. It's a tough, intense, intimate journey. I bring them to it, go there with them, guide them, push them, encourage them, comfort them, protect them. I am very good at handling this kind of material, its demands, and taking actors through it.

Once the overall approach is established, I prefer to keep it straightforward during day-to-day shooting: few words, develop a shorthand, faster, slower, more, less. Once the boundaries are set, actors want to get into the scene and be the character. Best at that point to just let them do it. Give guidance when necessary, but let them go...!

Filmmaking Theory & The Making of GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA

I'm most interested in film to tell stories, create drama, atmosphere, suspense - to submerge the audience into the environment of the narrative and the characters.

First comes the story. I was always into stories. Reading. Watching. I realized later that even from the youngest age I was studying stories, analyzing their structure, trying to discover what made them work.

When I was a teenager I got into film. I took up my own course of study. Learned as much as I could. I became known as a walking film encyclopedia. Knew of every important director and most of the minor ones. Also screenwriters, producers, cameramen, actors, editors, composers, production designers, stunt coordinators, etc., etc...

But I was most into how the language of film works - to tell the story. And to get across its emotion. How to use camera movement, composition, editing and music to create passion, desire, determination, suspense, drama - how to put the audience in the characters' shoes.

I realized, however, that the single most important element in getting across intense emotion, suspense and atmosphere is the actors. They are the portal for the audience. If they're not fully involved, nothing else is going to work.

I developed my own cinematic style.

Going after the chance to put it to use became my life's main focus.

I made a few shorts in film school at USC. Did a couple music videos when the opportunity arose. Wrote a few scripts. Edited five shorts by other emerging filmmakers.

But I was aching to do something that fell in line with where my strongest talent lay.
I'm most into science fiction and suspense thrillers, but it's rather difficult to pull one of those off without major backing.

What I'm really into is drama. Whether a piece is futuristic, contemporary, or of the past, big-budget or low-budget, sci-fi or straight-up horror, as long as it has a good dramatic foundation -- hey, it's got potential.

I wanted to do something original. I'd first met some goths on a film set where they were extras and got to know them. I did extensive research on the gothic subculture. The music. The clubs. The scene. The way they look at life.
This way over-simplifies it, but I'd long studied the dark side of human nature - and I too have a strong appreciation for dark, atmospheric music and environments.

I had earlier read of militant Straight Edgers in the L.A. Times. I'd never seen these characters put together in anything before. Goths and Straight Edger-types thrown into conflict in the same room. I knew this idea had promise as soon as I came up with it. It was a new take on the age-old theme of prejudice and intolerance.

I had to have a concept that was doable with little resources. GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA was designed with the idea of what could I do for virtually no money - one location - few characters.

I'd long been fascinated by films that were able to achieve a strong impact with superior craftsmanship but little backing. This, of course, is best exemplified by horror films going back to Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And they had a lot more to work with than I did.

Some artists seem to relish restricting themselves by choice. Hitchcock often placed his films in limited settings -- most notably, he put Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window in one contained location for their entire running time.
He knew that if done right, this would make them more claustrophobic and intense - and it would give him an additional creative challenge - how to keep things visually compelling while staying in one place?

I designed a very minimal physical setting: basically four actors in one room, with some make-up effects, blacked-out walls and a few simple props. We had one brief scene out front, with the antagonists approaching the door.

My goal was that the audience never gets the chance to realize how minimal it was. I wanted to take them through an intense emotional experience. They should be drawn in by the film's dramatic set-up and held in suspense through the whole thing. The story, performances and cinematic craftsmanship should work on their own merits.

I started by writing a full-length feature script. But I realized the only way I could get it done was as a short.

I had to boil it down to its core essence.
The full-length screenplay goes into far more with the characters, of course. I had worked in a good amount on the gothic subculture. There's more on how the Edgers targeted these particular goths - there's more characters - more build up - here you're almost just thrown in.

It was a difficult, intense shoot. Compromises were inevitable. But a certain standard had to be met.
The key for me was to keep to the emotional and thematic core of the piece. There would be no compromises there.

I also knew the atmosphere was very important, and that could not be compromised either. One of the most important elements in a piece like this is a strong atmosphere, getting across a strong sense of the environment. This is to make the audience feel they are vicariously in the characters' shoes, that they are right there.
So the lighting and the music were very important - this project may be virtually no-budget, but it had to be done right, or the thing wasn't worth doing. I worked very closely with the cinematographer, and later, the composer. I knew just what I wanted, and even though it was going to take longer, it had to be done.

There's often pressure to shoot with flat lighting, so you can move quickly from shot to shot with little changes or tweaking. The film-noir inspired, low-level lighting I needed meant having to change the lights every time I moved the camera. The rule of thumb is you can shoot at most two pages a day this way (and this almost proved to be true). I had a 10-page script. I scheduled a four-day shoot, and I was determined to stick to it. It was shot mostly in sequential order, as much as possible.

Time is also required for make-up effects. These were done on the last day, which naturally was the longest. The last shot you see in the movie was the last shot we did, well after midnight on the fourth day.
After a few hours rest the cameraman and I came back to shoot the close-up insert shots that did not involve the actors (the gothic icons, objects moving and falling over). So what should have taken at least five full days was done in four, plus a couple hours of inserts.

Looking back on it, the shoot was a great experience. With all the challenges. Everyone was there with a strong sense of purpose, and good work came out of it.

There were problems along the way - I could tell you stories about the trials and tribulations in the weeks leading up to production. Delays. Having to get a new location. More than once. Regrouping. Rescheduling. It seemed endless.

But I was determined to hold it together. And I always had the feeling that once we got to the shoot, it was going to go smoothly. For the most part.

And it did. I'm quite proud of the final result. It does what it was supposed to do.

Filmmaking Theory - On Over-Hyped Editing & Camerawork

I feel a music video-type style has taken over too many contemporary action films. And it doesn't accentuate the drama. It distracts from it.

Music videos have their place. But they're trying to do something different. In videos one looks to create strong, cool visuals to accentuate the music. Not so much the drama.

I'm all for fast cutting and a moving camera - when it's well designed and works as an integral part of the storytelling.
I'm a big admirer of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. They were the pioneers, they really developed the craft of filmmaking. They made brilliant use of the new language of film, particularly in their strikingly innovative editing.

Alfred Hitchcock had a real gift for psychologically-based editing - his cutting really emphasizes what the characters are thinking and feeling as they assess and deal with the heightened situation they're in.

Sam Peckinpah was trailblazing with his never-seen-before fast-cut action sequences - The Wild Bunch was extraordinary in its time.

George Miller is one of the best - he demonstrated some of the most spot-on excellent car-chase camerawork and editing we've ever seen in Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

There are others - John Frankenheimer has done brilliant work - William Friedkin with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Stanley Kubrick had some very effective editing in the first act of A Clockwork Orange. George A. Romero with Dawn of the Dead.

Martin Scorsese delivered with the boxing sequences in Raging Bull. James Cameron with the chases in Terminator 2.

Michael Mann scored with the intense, dramatic bank-robbery shoot-out in Heat. The Hughes Brothers with the armored-car heist in Dead Presidents. The Wachowskis with the street and freeway chase in The Matrix Reloaded.

John Woo has lots of fast cuts - he comes in for close-ups on bits of action and has numerous angles on his elaborate staging. But it's all clearly thought out beforehand in his signature style -- as with all the above, he makes sure the audience knows what's happening and where.

More than a decade ago when I asked Frankenheimer about his editing technique, he was quick to say it was very important not to confuse the audience -- now confusing the audience is fine as long as they get the impression that something awesome and impactful just happened - never mind they couldn't quite make it out.

In some films we get a bunch of cluttered close-ups on a fight sequence, then quick unconnected flashes of cars speeding by in chase scenes...

I defy you to tell me what exactly happened in some of these movies - how did he hit that guy? What move was that? Where did that car come from? How did it end up over there?
The audience gets fragments of a fight or chase, but they couldn't tell you in any detail what supposedly happened.

And what's with this over-use of herky-jerky handheld camerawork? Now certain action films go distractingly wobbly even on basic dialogue scenes - they're jiggling the camera around on two people talking over a restaurant table. Trying to make it look like an energetic documentary.

Friedkin was among the first to use "realistic" documentary-like camerawork in action sequences - check out The French Connection - but it wasn't overdone - it didn't call attention to itself.

What makes this especially frustrating is if these scenes were being shot by an actual documentary cameraman, he'd be holding the camera a hell of a lot steadier than some of these people of today who are deliberately wobbling the lens around in an exaggerated manner - to make it look more realistic? In a restaurant dialogue scene?

This music video-like style is becoming trendy and cool to some people, while the rest of us just put up with it.

There is a backlash developing, however - I've noticed a number of forums and bulletin boards on the IMDb and elsewhere where people were enthusiastic about a film - but then the herky-jerky lens work spoiled it for them.

Again, I'm all for a handheld camera in the right circumstance.
In fact - for those of you who may be interested - every shot in my suspense-horror short GOTHIC/CLAUSTROPHOBIA is handheld.
But I'll bet you don't pick up on that as you watch it.

I also had numerous fast cuts - many less than a third of a second -
The 2nd baseball-bat hit is in a five-frame shot - one sixth of a second.
There are 525 cuts in just under 12 and a half minutes.
I did this because it worked best for the film. It accentuates the drama.
It's not meant to be noticed.

I know -- now I'm drawing attention to it. Whaddya gonna do?

It's still possible today to have fast cuts and be coherent and dramatic - to build suspense and intensity -
But it has to be properly motivated, well designed and psychologically based.

The style should pull the audience into the film - put them vicariously in the characters' shoes. Not distract them from the experience they want to have.

On the new 10 Best Picture Oscar Nominees Rule - and which Producers should be included?

It seems evident to me that the end result of this new policy, announced 6-24-09, will be much less than people are making out.

Take a look at last year - The Dark Knight, Wall-E, and Doubt were always talked about as strong contenders, but they didn't make the list of the five Best Picture nominees. Now that the list has doubled, they would be in. At least one of the two Clint Eastwood films, Changeling and Gran Torino, would have been included. The list most likely would have been completed by other top-ten critics' picks like The Wrestler.

No comedy or documentary was among the list of top contenders like they were. That is likely to remain true in upcoming years. So I don't think we're going to see more unusual choices among the Best Picture nominees.

And as for picking the winner -- well, the chances for The Dark Knight actually winning would not have been improved.

Once a film consistently hits top-ten lists and wins earlier awards, it tends to become a favorite. The final narrowing down is done by the Director's Guild a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony.

Christopher Nolan was not nominated as best director - and it's very rare for a film with no director nom to win best picture. Once the DGA gave its top prize to Danny Boyle, it would have become just as clear as it was last February that Slumdog Millionaire was the front runner - this despite The Dark Knight's eight other nominations.

If they really want to widen the field, the Academy needs to change how the nomination votes are counted - Remember, for the most part, only the top choice of an Academy voter really matters - as I understand it, their 2nd and 3rd choices only kick in if there's a tie.
That means if The Dark Knight had been the 3rd or 4th choice of an overwhelming majority, it still wouldn't have gotten a Best Picture nomination - it needed to be the 1st choice of at least x number of voters.

Now that's still true, though it's odds would be improved.
But I still think most Academy members' top choice will be among the critics' top-ten picks - not something radical or outside the box.

Another option discussed - two different pix nominations lists - e.g. five each for Best Drama and Comedy - is not the way to go. Where you draw these lines is subjective.
Little Miss Sunshine is more a drama than a comedy, I'd argue. It was on a strong path as the leading contender, along with The Departed, until the DGA awards were announced.

But if there'd been a separate Best Picture - Comedy category, you can be sure there would have been big pressure put on to enter it there in the belief its chances of winning would go up. Which they would have. But then you've got two different award shows in one, like the Golden Globes.

The downside I regret is this move dilutes its purity - five nominations in each category. But of course this was already compromised - only three films are nominated in the Visual Effects, Make-up, and Animated Feature Film categories.
I don't think the animated film category would have been created if we'd had 10 best picture nominees back in 2001. Pixar's Up is very likely to get double nominated now, (unless people avoid voting for it in the top category because they know it will almost certainly win in the animated field).

Though they may get a tiny bit too much attention in the media, the Oscars are important. They've been around as long as there's been talking movies, and they've been important to the industry almost as long. It was a big deal when Gone with the Wind won 10 Academy Awards - from among the 10 nominated for Best Picture of 1939. We want to keep that history and tradition going.

It could be said the positive here outweighs the negative. Having The Dark Knight among the top nominees would have improved the ratings. It would have given the show more diversity, more interest, more color. More fun.

While we're here, I can't resist mentioning the controversy over which producers should be included in the Best Picture nomination...

To me the best definition of Producer is he's the guy who causes the film to exist - the one who found or initiated the property, advocated for it, took it around town, fought to get it made. The guy who sets it up. Or gal, or guys and gals, as the case may be. As we all know, many more people come aboard along the way, and they don't all deserve credit. That's what the Producers Guild and the Academy are trying to limit.

But there have been problems with this -
Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the two credited producers who apparently had the most to do with setting up Little Miss Sunshine, were left off the nomination list.
Because of this, the then six-year-old 3-Producer cut-off rule was amended.

That same year we had controversy over The Departed. Graham King, a terrific producer and a previous nominee, was reportedly brought aboard The Departed after it was set up. Brad Grey, who among the three credited producers had the most to do with setting it up, was left off the nominee list, along with his Plan B Entertainment partner Brad Pitt. So Graham King became the sole Best Picture nominee. Why? Well, Brad Grey became CEO of Paramount before The Departed finished production. So it seems likely that becoming studio head cost Grey a Best Picture Oscar on his mantle.

Personally, I prefer the purity of five nominees to a category.

But whether you're for or against the new 10-picture-nominee rule, there's at least one nice upside to it:

I don't know about you, but I can never get enough insider info on how certain films get made.

We found out far more about how Crash, Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed got set up and what their various producers had actually done after the debate began - after their nominations were announced.

Now we'll have the opportunity to hear twice as many such behind-the-scenes stories.

Dramatic music video Laurel Canyon now online

Song by Ganser.
Director: Roy Bedford.
Guy-girl conflict. A foot and motorcycle chase. Yes you can tell a gritty story in a music video.
Shot entirely on stolen locations.