How Are Directors Chosen (when it’s a job) ?

Putting aside the fact that most movies, especially independent productions, are conceived and directed by a director and that it would be generally a mistake to have that person step aside so someone else’s “vision” of their script can be accommodated, most of the discourse on the issue of directors has to do with hiring statistics and money – the director as coveted job.  Some of the conversation or the new norms just seem to be unsustainable and not merit based. Peter Farrelly has said, “If you think you are Kubrick the crew will make your life a living hell.” So on Dumb and Dumber he and his brother had to play dumb, so to speak, and ask the crew to cover their asses.  But then how does that advice work when you actually do have a vision and – Kubrick or not – want to at least strive to follow your own taste and figure out the directorial approach yourself?

Why are Directors Hired and what are the qualifications? When asked what a director does, I say if there is only one person on the crew doing everything, that is the director. What does the director direct? Most importantly, the audience. But in the current climate, who the hell knows how people get hired to direct.  I may praise or pick on a few names trying to connect the dots on this idea and what it might mean for devaluing the skill of creating images out of story.
Jennifer Kent the director of Babbadook is therefore qualified to direct anything.
Ari Aster directed Heredity, therefore he is qualified to direct anything.
Jodie Foster is a solid director, whether or not the content of The Beaver appeals to you. She has said she believes in ideally the best shot for each moment and having it be motivated, which a TV schedule rarely allows time for, making some shows about generic coverage or mere recording and documenting of the content.
Ava DuVernay was benighted by Oprah and others in the film industry to be the next big Diversity hire as a director after 20 years of imdb credits in promotions and marketing exclusively. Maybe she made a lot of positive connections promoting the work of other filmmakers. Her documentary about the Prison industrial complex and disproportionate black inmates made her even more friends because of the importance of the subject matter. But even though the casting of Selma is good what the audience might notice is her distracting habit of crossing the camera axis in otherwise straightforward dialogue scenes. That she then got a potentially complex project like A Wrinkle in Time is almost inexplicable if shot progression is a factor at all. With her pending project New Gods for DC, there might be even more need for fans and film pundits to explore in more detail just how certain directors work.
Ana Lily Amirpour wrote and directed two dark-themed films, her skateboarding vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and her sort of Escape from New York or Walking Dead without Zombies movie The Bad Batch and is supposed to do a new version of Cliffhanger. She talks about having a “boner” for a shot. She is a hands-on director, and whether someone likes the content or story being presented, the directing itself is thoughtful and full of personality. The way she reveals or conceals an element of a scene is deliberate and authentic.
Lord and Miller like the simple coverage approach and no storyboarding and are improvisational, therefore they were the wrong choice for a Star Wars movie.
The Russo Brothers came from the point and shoot, talking heads world and the hand held improv world of The Office where every episode looks the same no matter who directs, so it is inexplicable that they got to direct MCU movies. It is said that fight scenes for the Avengers movies are done by second unit directors like David Leitch who co-directed John Wick. What were the other factors and how much of the directing comes from the director(s)?

Jon Favreau was acting in a young man’s youtube short, an improvised western, and behind the scenes he confided, “You at least have a lot of freedom here. Marvel will give me storyboards they’ve come up with and say Just shoot this.” As important as story and character are, those can be SET by a writer or writing team before the director is brought in. I think if someone else, a storyboard artist or cinematographer is the de facto co-director it is bad in the long term for our perception of direction as a craft and the director as the primary creative on a movie. I think it is safe to give Favreau full credit for Chef which is a personal allegory from his other interest, cooking.
Frank Darabont did his best directing on Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. After doing an episode of The Shield, handheld, where you can’t tell who directed without reading the credits, he applied that slapdash approach to The Mist — but even within that he found places where expert directing does shine through. There was still some stillness and steadiness allowed. His Walking Dead episodes are solidly directed, as is his Mob City series that was short lived. People may consider him too specific and too perfectionist and willing to send overly honest (rude) e-mails. Still, he is qualified and should be directing more.
Jane Campion has made well storyboarded movies on topics that don’t excite me but I appreciate her confident use of the frame.
Steven Spielberg has compromised his brand as a director by being a producer credited on Michael bay Transformers movies and other films. The general public might make less distinction between producer and director, even if Spielberg lately as a rule will not even look at the cut until it is done. But Spielberg is the master of using screen grammar and applying it in the interpretation of a script. He also has the intuition to see what might be improved by new writers on a script, as with bringing in Josh Singer the Spotlight writer to improve the Liz Hannah script that came through Amy Pascal.

James Wan is getting into a similar boat, with many projects announced as being produced by him and nothing said about he director(s). It is like if someone is a talented dancer (the director) and there is an expectation that he or she must also be able to secure a stage and auditorium in which the dance can occur (the producer). Frankly a phone call from a Spielberg or Wan may be all the producing they have to do and then they can delegate the phone calls and hiring and make notes on the scripts.
As an exercise, if you can make it through the Fifth and Sixth Fast and Furious movies directed by Justin Lin, and you take some smelling salts to wake up and you can watch Furious 7 directed by James Wan you might feel in your unconscious at least a strong shift in how the frame is used. For me watching 6 and then 7 it was like night and day. I pushed myself to make it through 6 which felt very delegated and arbitrary. Furious 7 remained engaging and had a more strict adherence to film grammar. You might think Lin did a good job on Star Trek Beyond, but I think that movie was helped by a pretty solid script by Simon Pegg and we don’t know how much was delegated. Maybe the rear shot of the impulse drives before they took off was the equivalent of a smoking tail pipe shot in his car chase movies. But in terms of overall body of work Wan is the one whose name as director will instill confidence.
Tim Burton has admitted he would not know a good script if it hot him in the head. His movies are admired for the art direction and his direction. Ed Wood is a great script, as is Big Eyes, and maybe Beetlejuice. The main criticism of his movies will have to do with plotting and script.
Kevin Smith has said that you don’t need talent to be a director. He has said of his jobs on The Flash and Supergirl that those crews will make the show with or without a director and so he just brings doughnuts for them and people like having him around as a reassuring presence but the nuts and bolts of covering a talking heads dialogue scene are basic and action scenes are mostly predetermined by a team who already have a name for any “new” shot ideas he might come up with.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are set to be all-powerful overlords of Star Wars (maybe Knights of the Old Republic) while under the thumb of a woman who thinks of anything white or male-targeted as problematic. Are these two writers going to join the Director’s Guild? Or will they be looking at someone with proven visual punctuation skills to direct? In the current trend, it seems like writers can just be “team leaders” who delegate a lot of what we consider directing. If a Rian Johnson comes in to direct, it is possible that we would have to be less worried about his input than Kennedy’s input and that of her chosen Lucasfilm Story Group that may analyze plot the way Salon or theMarySue analyzes it, with identity politics as the primary concern. A Luke that responds to Rey aiming a lightsaber down at him with a force push he had demonstrated moments before would be logical and dramatically correct but not part of the old-man-wrong, young-woman-right nonsense that was being sold.

A movie that is mostly visual should travel better than one that relies on dialogue and and word awareness or word-play.  But a chatty script will survive a public table reading, the more it is like a radio drama.  This might also attract the sort of director who is content to do an establishing shot, over-shoulders for each character and close ups of each actor for the whole scene top to bottom – the equivalent of burger flipping.  But a visual and cinematic script will sound dry in a table reading and nobody wants to read a dense description of actions.  Images and the way they follow each other in a sequence will separate the directors from the pretenders.  It is also risky to be caught wanking with style and not having it tied to the advancement of the story.

I don’t know the solution, because either a trend or the popularity of an actor or a social movement might cause someone to be credited as a director.  I just personally cheer for those who really are creating what we see.  A Spielberg may be able to say he accepts ideas from everyone and that he finds the scene in the moment, but he also doesn’t have to prove himself now.  A new director coming up might want to be able to point to a storyboard and say, “Yeah, I’m happy to say I worked it out on paper so I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time and I was able to anticipate the equipment and the tools to achieve those shots.”  There can be a reason to hold a shot without cuts and without laying the image bare trying to be a languid “arty” indulgent director like Tarkovski.  I swear some directors have a contract for a certain running time so they will punk the audience by just letting the camera run or watching someone walk along through the desert (Gus Van Sant’s Gerry) or through the woods (Stalkyr).  Rarely is it forgivable (Lynch’s Eraserhead, where you expect to be punked and where it should be seen with an audience who gets long pauses and elevator doors that take absurdly long to close).

A mentor of mine used to say there is the film industry and then the film community.  I wouldn’t begrudge anyone to grab a camera and make some sort of movie.  It may build relationships even of one’s craft doesn’t grow in a measurable way.  But in the high profile discussion the dominates pop culture, I think it matters who is just a big personality or coasting on a third issue and those who are excited about the frame and what it can do, people who might legitimately be called movie geeks.  I want to see the artist’s hand on the brush, not someone else being talked through about how to move it. I admire the Rodriguez approach – capable of any crew position but knowing the whimsical or dramatic impact of each frame or move or cut.  And regardless of what walk of society someone comes from, if they have a grasp of that then they have a handle on movie direction.

People who come from theater too often conflate the cinematographer with the director.  They may think the director is the storyteller and that the choice of frame is something else.  They might see Ana Lily’s The Bad Batch and angrily trash it for the content but concede “The cinematography was good…”  even though the images were clearly planned by the director.

Someone like Altman would say, “I don’t like to direct.  I don’t show you what to look at.  I will stay loose and let you choose what to look at like a play.”  And that kind of thought is the enemy of cinema, as far as I’m concerned. You can let someone like that cast a movie or find a script but then let a DIRECTOR direct.  Pauline Kael controversially propped up Altman’s loose approach because it was at a time when movies were too glossy and slick. Actors prop up that approach because if they get to improvise they feel more engaged and less utility players being functional and it is the principle of conversation where if you only ask the other person what they think or to talk about themselves and you say nothing about yourself they will come away thinking you are interesting and brilliant. And it you just pontificate – even if you are right and saying something useful – they may just think you are full of hot air and a know-it-all (like, er, someone who does a blog like this – cough).

 

Internalized or Imposed Knowledge

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, except that some work is more satisfying than other work.  By a certain age I may have internalized my knowledge of movie making, especially directing the attention of the audience.  I need to decide on a sequence of shots, not just record content and see if it cuts together later. To feel I am directing a movie it is as much about use of the frame (placing the audience) as anything else.  Actors who have never acted may have a natural way about them that means walking through a room and giving a neutral expression can be more effective than someone who is on stage regularly and feels inclined to mug and gesticulate so the camera has to stay out of that performer’s way.

As long as the script is solid and the casting is appropriate, I can be free to DIRECT the movie.  I like to do that mostly on paper first, not under the gun.  Regardless of whether every shot by every other director has meaning or motivation, I will ask myself questions:

WHAT IF this shot matters or means something from below eye level or eye level or above eye level?

WHAT IF this wide lens elevates the scene and makes the mundane seem epic?

WHAT IF this shallow focus allows people to feel that the character in sharp and clear character feels isolated from the setting or other people?

WHAT IF these characters are only shown in the same shot or over shoulder when they may agree and only in singles when they are – overtly or under the surface – are apart?

WHAT IF an action or an image at the end of a scene can be answered or ironically followed by something at the start of the next?  Will that distract from or help unify the whole?

That kind of thing, on and on like that.  If I prepare to direct something and 90% of my satisfaction is going to come from pre-visualization and following through on the implementation of the vision, the last thing I want to hear is that the fashion is to be more “loose” and to just let the audience find what to look at like Altman and not direct their gaze.  There are a great many people working as directors who have the designation because they have excellent people skills but they may not bring much in terms of a vision.  That might make them very pliable and they can talk about their “authentic voice” because they choose subject matter or scripts that have a certain identity.  But to be honest, that kind of thing only means something for the director in question and his or her satisfaction using the medium as a platform.  For me, it is only the joy of the craft.  Once the screenplay is written and settled, it is less about voice and more about the articulation and grammar of the conveyance.

Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park portray people with a jaundiced eye and have more of a cautionary thrust.  The movies are more uplifting. If someone were to adapt those books with fidelity but the filmmaking was artless, there would be little point.

Meanwhile, in my own work, I already have specific shots I know I want and scene transitions regardless of whether the broad strokes of a story or the fine points of a screenplay draft have provided the opportunity as yet.  Just showing up and “going with the flow” makes no sense to me.  I have to know what I want and have a craving for it and be somewhat obsessed to go through the long haul and the sleepless nights of setting dates and following through with shoots.

I think it hurts the craft and the perception of director as a position if too many people are delegating the frame or not having a “camera boner” as Ana Lily Amirpour might call it for how a moment is going to be framed. The most lax approach would be like video recording a stage play, and we all know how detached that can feel playing it back.  To shoot for the camera can be both self-conscious and so focused that it feels of a piece with the content being followed.

With e-mail, blogs, tweets, or Facebook and Instragram posts people can say bluntly and sometimes artlessly and clumsily exactly what they feel.  If the delivery device for a message is something as cumbersome and labor intensive as a movie, maybe there had better be something besides the most obvious message and instead also the bonus understanding that you clearly understand and love the craft of movie making and respect and reward the attention of the audience.

I am busy watching a dream in my head which is just as loud as the reality around me.  If someone starts talking about numbers I will have to reorient myself and wake and then concentrate again to find my place again.  If someone were to ask me on set why I am directing and how I got there and what my qualifications are, I might be short with that person because it is not conducive to anything of use to me. If that person knows my body of work, then there is no need to ask.  If they don’t, there is only one way to interpret it:  Why isn’t someone more successful doing your job?  Luckily most people have the sense to let that go and then just get on with their own job.    I don’t have much interest in selling my feature scripts, since I intend to direct them myself whether I am deemed worthy or not by external measure.  The input of years of cinema being absorbed will demand the output of generating my own movies and continuing a vocation or a habit I have had since 1984.

I recall an interview with a cinematographer who said the worst movie making experience would be with a director who has spend years preparing something and is finally making the movie.  Because that person’t vision will be something almost set in stone and it won’t allow for a lot of flexibility (or for the the cinematographer to be a defacto co-director).  If that kind of concern can be drawn out early on, the right people can be recruited for a project.  I mean, frankly, at this point I have a few projects that have languished or gestated for years or decades and I know that following through on what has already been discovered is more important to me than letting it go and letting Murphy’s Law determine what else can be found and just coasting on serendipity and slapping my name on it at the end and feeling disingenuous.  Whether it is in the writing stage or story boarding stage or on the set, there is a degree of instinct and letting years of absorbed cinema work through the unconscious.  The labor for me is the technical aspect, and negotiating with people or vetting them insofar as I can.  What motivates me is a movie that does not yet exist but that I have already pretty much seen.

Twitchy Twitter, Tribes and Fans

This video should play as cued, from 2:09:28 where Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise) reads a letter of support I submitted regarding the mess of knee-jerk reactions people on Twitter had to one of his tweets about the riots.

For what it’s worth, a lot of us have chimed in to acknowledge how easy it is for imprecise wording can trigger some and cause allies to run away.

How to Kill a Golden Goose

Or the goose that laid golden eggs.  I’m not sure if the goose itself has to be golden.

  1.  Identify an IP you have or that you can obtain that has a history of success, either in viewership or box office or sales.
  2. Look at the market research for the built in audience and discover what the characteristics of these fans might likely be or have been and how your demographic is perceived.
  3. If this core potential customer was of high school age in the 1980’s, ignore their value in evangelizing the brand to younger family members or students or their sphere of social media influence because after all they are middle aged or older and irrelevant and on their way to the grave.
  4. If these be white or Caucasian, remember that they are the devil and if your new iteration of something includes even the same percentage of racial diversity as the original you can preemptively call them racists to shade their objections.  If they are male and heterosexual, call them bros or sexists or ‘phobes because that will cause a meaningful soul-searching on their parts most certainly.
  5. On your site, under any announcement or trailer, be sure to curate the comments so that reasonable and articulate objections to a proposed film or show or product are deleted as much as possible and what is left are the outlier comments from twelve-year-olds or carelessly vile and profane people that you can hold up as  ambassadors from the movement against your “deconstructionist” initiative.
  6. Disregard as “toxic fandom” any essay or review from outlets like Midnight’s Edge, Red Letter Media, or any loose network of influencers who use the hashtag “Fandom Menace.”
  7. Be sure to have someone ask directors, writers or actors if they can imagine the brand or IP being led by someone or subject matter that currently has nothing to do with it or that would interact strangely with other ingredients and confuse the palate.  For example, if your movie takes place entirely in a desert, have someone from an aqua fitness magazine ask why there is no swimming scene.  It will help force affirmative answers and steer the expectations of the audience – or at least the vocal activists on Twitter – and force eventual progress.  A mix of water and sand can be malleable, constructive mud.  If you are from pink news and ask Donald Glover whether his young Lando Calrissian is a pansexual or fluid, being young and hip he will answer in the affirmative. Never mind that the following year grown up Lando Billy Dee Williams will give a polite answer that is misinterpreted to a point where he has to bluntly say, “What the hell is gender fluid?”  By then, the macho fans who like smooth ladies’ man Lando have already been turned off by the affirmative iteration.
  8. What’s in a name?  Be sure to ask whether a new character can piggy-back on a brand even if the name doesn’t fit.  Asking Steven Spielberg if there could be a female Indiana Jones results in, “Sure.  She would have to be Indiana Joan.”  You can let the “toxic” fans chime in as to whether Robert Zemeckis already gave us Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone and its sequel.   Ask if James Bond can become Jane Bond or if he can be gay, without concern for how the love interest scenes will play and the abandonment of Play boy lifestyle appeal, you will most likely get a yes from every actor who played the part and most creatives because they can always chalk up the status quo to exhibitor indifference.
  9. Dump a lot of money into the production values and try to rope in some celebrities at least for cameos.  This will ensure that when the whole thing sinks it sinks deep. Make sure you have many pilot fish “producers” making money on the mere fact that something started shooting, regardless of their limited involvement.
  10. Completely rely courting only the new fan that hypothetically fits your idea of what a viewer or consumer should be, and depend on the idea that people who post on social media are also the same people who rush to see content from that franchise and buy merchandise and will put their money where their collective mouth is to bolster this variant that was “made for them” and not made for the old and irrelevant former fans it proudly trolls.  Or the trolls being trolled.  (All critical customer and market feedback is to be deemed as trolling, so it can be disregarded.)
  11. Clamp down on any actor – especially one who is notably liberal and progressive – who is critical of the new iteration of a character or disappointed by the direction of the story.  This might spoil the narrative that only right-wingers and fuddy duddies and latent serial killers complain about changes.
  12. If it ain’t broke, fix it.  Fix it like fixing a dog.

Print this out and keep it in your pocket for reference to make sure you are on track to run your career and spend, spend, spend like the most privileged, rich, white producers and studio bosses at the wine and cheese.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture Shock, Language and EthnoCentrism

It is not for me to say that I am not racist. That can only be an observation made by someone else. I will make no bones about being ethnocentric, and I am about as okay with that as the subtle pang of inadequacy I get from not being fluent in French at the very least, or Mandarin or any other number of languages.  It is supposed to stave off the onset of dementia.  Whether it is the visual language of cinema or an enjoyment of words, whatever background is the tool chest you have to work with.  If my reference points and pop culture call-backs are too old, or if wordplay in my dialogue will not translate overseas, that is on me and I have to accept that.

If you are from a mostly white city, it is fair to assume that most of your friends were white but also most if not all of your enemies and bullies were white. As an adult, I think everyone I can count as an enemy is the same complexion and speaks the same language and pretty much has the same politics and likes many of the same movies.

In first year of college, I rented a room with an African couple and eventually we got along. I called the police when the husband hit his pregnant wife with a phone and that bought me a lecture from his visiting brother. In second year, I rented from the girlfriend of a Jamaican guy I had made a music video for. I could write a whole blog about that but it was mostly okay. One time he was drunk and pointed to his girlfriend’s kitchen calendar that bikini shots and said, “Do you like black women?” I listed a few movies stars like Haley Berry and he said that doesn’t count and I called him on his little game. In third year, I was renting with a classmate and his girlfriend and I remember arriving at the place. Neighbors gave a rousing welcome and wave and I thought gee, that’s friendly.  My friend was more cynical and accurate, indicating his white arms and that they were celebrating new people of the same complexion. Our landlord Manjit had his kids, drawings on the fridge and it was clear that Father Knows Best sensibilities still existed.

Maintaining a bit of contact with someone from a directing workshop I attended, I was asked to recommend a movie to study for the craft of direction.  I immediately said Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis. The person responded with a link to a movie the title of which I don’t recall but it began with an elegant shot gliding over the Ganges to people on the shore.  From that, what I got was that he was not really asking about movie direction. I’m not interested in simply recalling the material 1980’s American pop culture sensibility and imposing that on anyone, and I only have the most remote interest in deep diving into the specifics of politics, life and religion around the world. I am right handed and I would feel as much anxiety about writing with my left hand as I would moving out of Canada. I can still enjoy Forest Gump as a heartwarming story and others will call it, “Americacentric, baby boomer references with a man-child representing the naive USA.”  David O’Russell made a dismissive remark about Raiders of the Lost Ark, that it was, “The American adventurer invading and exploiting other cultures,” or words to that affect. Meh.  Nobody asked him, even though he was being interviewed.

There are jokes I may still laugh at that involve or comment on stereotypes and where those come from. The chickens have already come home to roost for my religion. Some Popes are better than others, and there are good people and yadda, yadda, yadda. I lived the first third of my life a couple of blocks from our parish church, and got my newspaper carrier job, lumber mill job and sacristan job there. (Sacristan has the keys to the church, opens and locks it, and sets up for services and sells the religious articles and vigil lights, that kind of thing.) I went to Catholic elementary schools and a Catholic High School, and we knew the Stages of Human Evolution.

People can dig at “Classic” literature and films, but they have yet to come up with lasting replacements. Should the works of Mark Twain, or anything on slavery or the American Civil War be stricken from schools?  I don’t know if it is any more necessary than prayer in schools.  I was an indifferent student and only eagerly read science fiction or horror as a teen.  In my twenties, when I didn’t have to, I ended up reading books I had faked reports on and only then could I have appreciated them.  People may need to find their literature and their religions later in life. I could sit in church and only perk up if a priest mentioned the Ark of the Covenant or made a pandering reference to The Force.  The Original Star Wars Trilogy is the other religion I had.  One would think these brands are deigned to please everybody, but…. well, I’ve ranted on those divisions in other blogs.

The Dam Busters was a major source for the final battle of the original Star Wars, so I finally watched it and though it is interesting to hear dialogue George Lucas directly pulled from that movie it is distracting right off the bat that somebody has a dog that is black and casually calls it by a word best left to rappers. King Kong is held up as great, but the original natives of Skull Island may not play today.  That said, I don’t advocate erasing anything from history. I once had a read-along Disney book from Song of the South called “Brier Rabbit and the Tar Baby” which seemed innocent at the time. I distinctly remember sitting with my family at age 9 watching the Roots Mini-Series, and yet I likely thought nothing of the name Toby someone gave our black cat.  I say that even if if it is embarrassing. If I had my way, Blazing Saddles might not be taught in school but I would find a way to make sure everybody I know saw it.  Might be a way to scare off the safe space culture that wants to retro-fit everything.

I don’t have to refer to bygone times to excuse anything.  There are people, no doubt, in the internet hive that would be up in arms over a show like Quantum Leap because no matter whose life he takes over he would be dismissed as a “white savior” fantasy.  I wonder whenever another Radio Raheem in film or George Floyd in reality is killed by aggressive police whether I would have the balls to fumble out my cell phone or other camera and record this and make myself a target of other cops, let alone also speak up or stand between a back person and the cops in case guns are drawn.  My expectation is that I would freeze.  I could surprise myself so I don’t have to be haunted for the rest of my life.  And in the most selfish sense, honest and sane cops and white people who do not count themselves as ists or phobes or criminals or maniacs have every reason to be furious not only about the murders but also about increased perceived division and shade thrown on those of us considered privileged.  Violence causes radicalization.

In Do the Right Thing, to be honest, I still don’t know what the title refers to. The mayor tells Mookie, “Always do the right thing.” He says, “Is that it?  Got it.” Years later, Mookie appears in another Spike film, Red Hook Summer where he is still delivering pizza for Sal but in another neighborhood.  So where did that get him.  The cop who choke holds Radio Raheem is responsible for his own actions. But what led up to it is Buggin’ Out who has spend the movie trying to radicalize everyone to make them boycott Sal’s pizza for only having photos of Italians decorating his wall despite most customers being black. (Something Buggin’ Out does a double-take to as if he has just noticed, despite going there since he was a kid.)  I don’t want to hazard a guess as to who is the Buggin’ Out of today, but there will always be instigators and hot summers and short tempers among the citizens that police have to serve and protect.  And there is no point getting into the weeds.  When Tarantino spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally after another rash of police violence incidents, the public face the New York police brought out to speak to the press said things like, “We’ve got a surprise for Mr. Tarantino.”  And, “He does movies about crime so he is in favor of crime.”  THAT was the PUBLIC face they brought out.

Never mind that much of the progress of history has alongside of it atrocities and exploitation and leaders looking the other way as empires were built. I don’t see The Spanish Inquisition or Pope Pius XII shaking hands with Hitler when I look at a priest, nor do I assume they are all pedos. If fact, being a priest seems pretty brave today.  Some of us want to see ourselves as the Canadian Brad Pitt character in Twelve Years a Slave, not condoning slavery. (Yet it was only last year that I heard about the Simcoe act and had any knowledge that Canada did at one time have slaves.)  At the same time, the last thing I would want is to come off as magnanimous for not behaving like a racist. That bar is set too low.  We are all being forced to look at the lowest examples of human behavior and an overly wrong-headed American President that Stanley Kubrick would find unbelievable.

When people mention reparations, we try to do the math and realize there would never be enough money even from the deepest pockets. Google says it means transitional justice.  I looked it up for the hell of it.  But we also have Jeff Bezos getting by without much tax and raking in money as a sort of coronovirus profiteer.  Gun manufacturers get subsidies. But with all the scum in office and their funding to keep the general public uninformed the fix is in.  Maybe the problem with looting and destruction is that it is not focused enough. But we can’t get too specific because nobody wants the secret service at their door.

A Good Day, Not a Dark Day, for Film

I still look forward to seeing Patrick Read Johnson’s feature 5-25-77 about his personal experience visiting Industrial Light and Magic, seeing a preview of Star Wars, and anticipating the official release day when others would get to know what he did, that cinema may have changed.  I reject the theory or accusation put forward by Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and other sources blaming Jaws or Star Wars for a “blockbuster mentality” that killed brief golden era of the late Sixties and into the Seventies (Raging Bull being a 1980 film).  The theory goes that without Star Wars (released on 32 screens apparently, or at least under 40, with Fox coercing some exhibitors into accepting it or not getting to book The Other Side of Midnight which they wanted) there would be no hard cut to Hollywood only wanting big tent pole movies.  That spin overlooks the fact that a) Everything from Gone with the Wind to Abbott and Costello movies were moneymaking ventures, b) smaller movies and underdogs and sleeper hits as well as darker themes were still being made long beyond May of 1977, c) corporations from the oil, soda pop, and wine cooler industries were taking over the studios in the Eighties, and d) whatever artistic merit Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate and various other films might have had the indulgence of directors frightened a lot of money people and the era where Pauline Kael for example elevated directors (even perhaps over-rated ones like Altman, sorry) was over.  Not because of Star Wars.

First generation Star Wars fans (according to a former Disney executive who disclosed this in a radio interview and lit up youtube recently) are considered by the current regime of Lucasfilm – particularly Kathleen Kennedy – part of a disposable demographic:  fifty-year-old white males.  So instead, the effort it so attempt to lure a new built in audience that frankly doesn’t exist.  My own ilk loves the Original Trilogy and likes The Mandalorian as a close approximation of the tone.  By 1997 we were complaining of changes made in the Special Edition releases, which were further tweaked for VHS, and then for DVDs and finally for Blu Ray and then Disney + adding Greedo’s line, “McKlunkey.”  1999 was also declared a death of Star Wars because The Phantom Menace was a dramatic mess with elements like Jar Jar that played only to children and lowered the score card for Star Wars as a series.  Under Disney, there was raised expectations, followed by mixed feelings, and for many of us a heart-breaking problem with leadership and priorities.  The newer films look slick and have a generally snappy pace but are also burdened by Kathleen Kennedy’s misguided ideology.  “If you don’t like Luke Skywalker, stay away from running Star Wars, please,” would have been great advice before it was too late.

Shaft (2019) honors its brand in terms of tone and continuity, even more than the 2000 iteration John Singleton did.  It could cast a critical and sarcastic eye on the safe space generation without apology.  Too bad the movie did not make much money.  There are so few examples of a follow-up not just being used as a counterfeit and a front for the transitory moods of the moment.

When you see Poltergeist (1982), you take for granted Beatrice Straight as an academic at a university and a parapsychologist.  When you see The Andromeda Strain (1971) you accept Katie Reid as a scientists, and in Dreamscape we accept Kate Capshaw as a scientist.  We might withhold benefit of the doubt from Denise Richards as nuclear scientist Dr.  Christmas Jones in 1999’s Bond offering The World is Not Enough but not because of her gender.  But when Paul Feig made a big deal about inspiring little girls to become scientists because of his remake of Ghostbusters in 2016, it was a head-scratcher.  Ostensibly progressive ideas did not begin current year.  My generation grew up watching Norman Lear sit-coms, as well as Mary Tyler Moore and the MASH series.  We don’t have to be lectured on liberal think by the radicalized extremes of the day.  Feigbusters might inspire little girls to become con artists exploiting a belief in ghosts, or to be a transit worker who just wants to hang out with supposed scientists.  Having fancier equipment to “kill” ghosts and more proton streams, and being able to do cartwheels while zapping ghosts doesn’t make for a better movie.  Sony and anyone associated with that movie, as well as talk show hosts, played up a gaslighting of fans for whom a stigma was invented.  A few years later, as we anticipate Jason Reitman’s reinstatement of the original continuity and ignoring the attempted reboot, the sour grapes are now coming from the other end of the spectrum.  Good.  I wish only the best for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, as the new movie is called.   Even if it has been pushed to next March instead of this summer due to Coronavirus.  One hopeful theory bandied about is that the next wave of cinema will stop patting itself on the head for its messaging and just make better movies that put story and character over side-shade and ciphers that insult the audience.

Star Wars was a practical essay on cinema that had preceded it, greater than the sum of its parts, and just fun to watch.  It also served as a primer for its components and inspirations.  We might not sit through every black and white Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serial, but we may give a chance to The Hidden Fortress or The Dam Busters, whether or not those movies play as well for young people of today as they did for George Lucas.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was also a visual essay summarizing the development of cinema and the best if can offer, coming from the fanboy whimsy of Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and the best director in the world, Steven Spielberg.  Tarantino’s films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained for example are also a culmination of one person’s broad exposure to and love of movies.  It is all about the love of movies and the transmission of that either overtly or subtly to the audience.

Right now the best way to watch the original trilogy is the De-specialized editions, which I believe may only be available as torrents. Had the bonus discs of the original trilogy been full DVD quality when they were made available with the second release of the Special Editions, we might have been satisfied to have that apparently laserdisc sourced version and not a low pixel dub that was designed to steer us toward playing the special editions.  Both Star Wars (later A New Hope) and Return of the Jedi have May 25 as the anniversary of release.  The Empire Strikes Back was May 17, 1980.

I like both iterations of the animated Clones Wars shows, and Rebels had some quite good episodes. Even though Revenge of the Sith is the least weak of the prequels, I have no feeling for that trilogy.  And the more I learn about the fix being in for the Disney era and how many things might have been so much better if, say, Dave Filoni had been put in charge of Lucasfilm instead of Kennedy, it makes the heart sink. People say Kennedy knows the “business” part of the job…. yet, once your source of movie funding is Disney and you only have to get your budgets from that one place just how much “business” acumen do you need?

Star Wars was like a drug and I kept going the the cinema as a regular habit attempting to chase the dragon of whatever magic I had felt from those films from 1977 to 1983.  The rest of cinema benefited from that because I saw most movies through the Eighties and Nineties at the height of my film going, and I could be the 13 year old going to On Golden Pond or 14 year old going to see Sophie’s Choice. Liking Star Wars did not limit anyone’s taste or interest but goosed a faith in the craft and an appreciation for anything well done.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaps of Internal Logic

Using some down time to binge watch the 1989-1993 TV series Quantum Leap, I mentioned this to a friend who asked if it holds up.  This led to me giving a long-winded answer getting into the idea that we may indeed live in a world or culture where the ultimate show about living in someone else’s shoes can still be dismissed as not progressive enough.  The show is often about trying to get someone back together or dealing with an historic social ill that won’t be resolved and instead there will be more personal struggles that can be resolved.  Quantum Leap was ambitious and its heart in the right place.  A Christmas episode with a Scrooge theme involved a Salvation Army shelter in danger of being demolished, and no doubt some who all-or-nothing in their ideology and have a tendency to over-reach may take issue over the american chapters of Salvation Army not having the most open policy toward LBGTQ, some of the most active internet activists. But for the most part, Boy Scouts and Salvation Army and any number of organizations that may have a blind spot are still well known for helping a great many people.  So the show goes on.  Most of us can still watch an episode like that and have it “hold up” as heartwarming without socio-political distraction.  You may have to go back thirty years for entertainment that isn’t putting Twitter appeasement first.

Having said that, loving the show, I encountered an episode in season three that unraveled my understanding of the premise.  I suffer from cognitive dissonance, having interpreted the mechanics of the premise one way and then hitting “8 1/2 Months,” written by Deborah Pratt whose narration you hear in the following intro clip.

I understand that Sam “stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.”

WHAT I THOUGHT was that he then physically materialized in what they call in the future PROJECT Headquarters “the waiting room,” which I assume is a different room than the accelerator and with someone else’s consciousness or soul while at the same instant Sam Beckett’s consciousness has been transferred to that person’t physical body in the past.  It seemed to make sense (and not strain my willing suspension of disbelief) that we the audience will see Scott Bakula/ Sam Beckett in the clothes of that person for theatrical purposes because we are seeing who he is INSIDE but when he looks into a mirror or other reflective surface he is seeing what everyone else is seeing – the actual physical body that is still there in whatever past time period Sam has leapt into.

Whenever someone takes a photo or video of the person Sam occupies, the resulting image shows who is physically there:  the person from the past, not Sam.

He will see and hear his friend Al as a hologram helping him guess the purpose of his leap.  Children and anyone in an alpha state can perceive Al.  But as Al interacts with Sam, he sees the person Sam has leapt into.  Al finds himself in sexual conflict looking at a beautiful woman Sam has leapt into, so that reinforces the idea that physically the person from the past remains in the past with only Sam’s consciousness animating them.

WHAT WE ARE TOLD in this season three episode via exposition is gnawing at my brain. Sam has leapt into a young, very pregnant woman.  A lady from the hair salon at one point touches Sam’s (unseen by us) belly and feels a kick from the baby.  There is no reason she should feel the kick if the mother is not physically there.  Sam feeling it himself is explained by Al as the result of a neuro-link between him and the person whose life he is inhabiting, who is supposedly IN THE WAITING ROOM in the FUTURE physically.  She supposedly has the baby inside her in the future and Sam can only experience the discomfort and try to patch things up with her judgmental father and with the boy who impregnated her.   We are told by Al (for the first time in this episode, so they sure know it was not clear) that the people of the past see Sam as the other person due to a digital or holographic illusion.  That does not explain why Sam sees his host in mirrors.  And it is hard to swallow that everyone regardless of proximity is subject to some sort of hallucination or projection technology.  Supposedly according to this one episode by producer Deborah Pratt Sam and the past person PHYSICALLY travel through time to switch places so that the past person finds himself/herself in the future waiting room to be debriefed by staff of the project.  This creates so many new problems.

Will a physical time traveler carry viruses from one era to another like carrying disease to a new continent?  There is no decontamination between leaps. And is the person who arrives in the waiting room wearing clothes? Or wearing Sam’s clothes?  Because Sam clearly arrives after a leap wearing whatever suit or dress or bathtub his new identity is in.  If that person had been riding a motorcycle at the time of the leap, Sam finds himself driving a motorcycle. Is he wearing a leather jacket and protective gear or is that itself part of a magical projection people think they see?

I just can’t reconcile that new information with what I had thought I understood.

My instinct is, going forward, to pretend that episode doesn’t exist.  So far there is no indication that this elaborates or touches back on that version of how it all works.

I feel like when The Last Jedi came out and there was a campaign to remove it from canon.  Most shows I love have something that spoils it a bit.  The final episode of Quantum Leap, as I recall, was just strange.  The final episode of Dexter was also kind of traumatic and veered away from what I thought should have happened. But it is true that one bad or strange episode of something, one bit of whimsy that might have been an inside joke in a writers’ room, can taint much of something good.

As I finish watching the discs I have, I’ll see if this is resolved or whether I can just put it behind me.  Even the ending of this episode is convoluted in terms of (spoiler alert) Sam going into labor and the baby in the future waiting room disappearing before the mother disappears and before Sam’s leap. So then we have to fill in that the baby was in some neutral place before returning to the mother’s womb.  That is way too much complication.

In my own version of events, it just makes sense that Sam is only there in mind and the mother and child never physically left her time.  But that’s me.  As we are often told by creators these days, fans “don’t own” the shows they like.  But we can sure vent our confusion.

I mean I had been thinking a theater version of Quantum Leap might be possible if the physical Sam Beckett is always in the waiting room and simply changing his voice and behaviour as new people inhabit him during leaps.  We do not see that end of things.  But if the information in this one episode is correct, then that wouldn’t work.  Maybe I can go back in time to persuade Deborah Pratt to not write it that way.  But I would only send my consciousness, not my physical self.

 

 

 

 

Direct

A well told story might give the impression that anything we encounter along the way might have a use to solve a problem down the line. Watching a lot of Hollywood movies, this is especially reinforced.  Ideally, nothing is wasted and anything can have a through-line.  Back to the Future has layers of that in its construction.  What if your life is all about movies, even for decades, and that information either culminates in a future making movies or it does not? What if you are spinning wheels as a know-it-all and there is no reward for that?

What can go through your mind are motivated frame, when to use selective focus, when to cut on an active frame (leaving a blurred piece of the person running through), and why story boarding is more satisfying that leaving the images to the cinematographer.  But another aspect of movie immersion is that while empathy extends to the characters (fictional or otherwise) on screen, the heightened emotion and stakes can overwhelm our identification and as they say in Fight Club “turn the volume way down” on the everyday issues of reality.

What comes to mind is the Delroy Lindo musician character at his piano and ignoring his family in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. Or the depressed and neglectful father Mel Gibson plays in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver.  Time accelerates and I can be grateful if anyone has a fond impression of me despite my preoccupied disposition.  When I had some luck with grants a couple of times in the early 2000’s, I could justify being in that head space.  I may be a better writer now and have more resources, but I have to get over being fed up with people and their own goals which may not mesh with my own. I can prepare something for a year and see it fall apart because I have been doing “producer” work for which I have no particular knack instead of simply writing and directing.  But a lot of people are in that boat, including big directors from the Eighties who find themselves having to do what a producer might do – and as a result not generating many movies of late.

I may not like green screen, but I may use that where I did not expect to, just to simplify the logistics of projects.  I am eager to get actors on camera bringing to life certain scenes, even if I have to comp them into scale models.  That might be where more of my focus goes in the months ahead.  It also allows for having as few people around as possible in the post-Covid world.   And in an industry where people skills and connections will trump a knack for choosing the best shot for each beat of a scene, or the most appropriate transition between scenes, it will be more tempting to let the movie in my head overwhelm the conversations around me.  It will be vital to prepare people for that aspect of my psyche. So people know they are not being ignored or under valued if I am in a daydream state or concentrating on something not yet there.

 

 

Writing, Rewriting, Refining

Over the birthday of an actor who is to be the lead in a feature I cancelled in 2017, I did another scroll through the draft and also went through the simplified alternate draft I wrote that year to generate a 2020 output of it.  You never know whether a script will ever only be a script.  I had done some similar cherry picking for the novelization, which is now being copy edited or proof read, with the same concern that it may be the final product that conveys my vision.  But I still had to go back and pick through the screenplay itself in case opportunity opens up again to shoot it.  At least that aspect – the script – can be in a state of readiness.

In practical terms, this has meant introducing a trio of supporting characters earlier and letting us be invested in them so that they are more than an idea and we feel their absence in other scenes and appreciate their return.  That was the biggest adjustment. The Devil is in the details as they say. If someone were to make everything more colloquial and shoot it handheld, the unreality of this universe would be undermined as there are runs of dialogue that must be a unit and the subject matter was chosen for its visual potential and my own preference for a cartoonish formality.  If something sticks out as not being the right fit, I have to refine it.  I have a sense of relief again that now I can hand someone this draft and say I absolutely intend to shoot this.  It is not an idea or a stem cell; form follows function and it knows what it is. Ready to print. Ready to shoot.

The downside could arguably be that the more specific and clear your screenplay, the more resistant you will be to variations offered by others.  But that may be the trade-off. I know I will not be vindicated as a writer unless I have followed my own writing, for good or ill.  If someone likes it, they like my writing.  If I were to trade it out for improvisation or someone else’s rewrite (either more chaotic or more sanitized), even if it finds an audience and is popular it will not feel like my own work.  So as this final draft is presented to potential collaborators, it all still comes back to making sure they want to make the same movie. The script will decide which actors are appropriate, not the other way around.

Some people thrive on chaos and I don’t.  Had I shot the 2017 draft that represents most of the novelization, it would have been true to my intentions.  The current version also is, with the benefit of three more years of distance and contemplation.  It might be a good idea to scare off anyone who doesn’t want to commit to reading and learning the script at this point.  The story – as I often say – is just a container for the stuff I care about, specific dialogue and specific shots in my directorial plan.  If that sounds like tunnel vision, consider this:  The main character first appeared in a 2007 short, and was a name on a piece of paper since the early Nineties.  In 2008, I cobbled together what might have been called the first draft, and then on the advice of a prospective producer spent a year submitting possible outlines I would be willing to expand.  After settling on the final premise, many drafts lived their lives as submissions to the Canadian Film Center, and table readings and CineCoup.   There were many opportunities over more than a decade where drafts or corrected outputs would be sent around for feedback.  I went through the process of simplifying stages of the ending and “killing my darlings” that might have been amusing bits which had no function or detracted from the big picture.  There is a point where it has to become a closed system, as John Cleese would say.  Now it is a matter of getting competent and committed production infrastructure.

I have been told it might be too logistically complex for a first feature.  It won’t be my first feature by the time it is shot.  It is actually also fairly contained.  There are a couple of scenes that do involve a number of people but much of it is manageable.  Safety has always been a concern and more so in the current climate.  But watching the movie will not be a “safe space” which seems to be something that chokes out and smothers anything with the reckless charm of an Eighties movie or a Chappelle monologue. It will be fun and also frankly may have something to offend everybody.  It may offend or trigger the extreme right or extreme left, both of which are fair targets of ridicule.

A writer can only have faith that there will be a percentage of the creative community and potential audience that will share the same sense of mischief or sensitivity and edge and might appreciate a movie that represents an uncompromising blah bity blah, blah. I don’t feel comfortable saying “vision,” because it sounds pompous and in fact writing or directing are more a risk and a state of vulnerability than a god-like power position. I have gone through several stages of imperfection, so it does not arrive full blown but is fuzzy and has become more clear as placeholders and distractions have been improved and thumbnail sketches have been redrawn.  The only thing you can count on is honoring your own impulses and your gut as to what seems to spice and season a script and get it all effectively across. Wish me luck.

The Corman Challenge and Corona

The biggest hitch to the #CormanChallenge is to shoot a short on a cell phone.  I have a cheap Samsung Galaxy J3 which I would replace in a minute if I could just walk into the store instead of trying to order on the phone itself through the website and get caught in the loop of the store in my area I want to pick it up and the site attempting to steer me to have it mailed, which is too risky. Packages can end up left in the hall if I am at work (essential) or I can get a notice to walk over to the mall post office, right beside the store I would have preferred to just pick up the parcel.

Maybe that itself could have been (or could be) a short.  I don’t know.  But I had to use packing tape and a selfie stick propped here and there to get the simple but functional shots I needed for my short entry, “Alarm Rest.”  I have no idea whether it will be seen by Mr. Roger Corman or other directors reportedly screening entries, like Ron Howard, just because I post a link or allow others to share a link to the video with @RogerCorman and #CormanChallenge on “any social media.”

 

When Sean Baker and his DP  Radium Cheung shot Tangerine “on a cell phone” it was an iphone with apps that allowed them to set the frame rate at 24 frames per second and lock the iris and focus, and they usually had a housing for the cell that kept movement smooth. I ran into a couple of shots that were so handheld and shaky I tried slowing them in post.  I also discovered that even though everything was framed landscape to look like a movie and it played back on my PC and even on my Mac as landscape those shots required me to shoot downward or at such an angle that something might have been confused because in the editing program they came out as portrait. Those I had to just re-shoot the following day.

Meanwhile, I have gotten a renewed taste for the process of shooting and I know I have to get back into it as a routine.  I have looked back at drafts of the screenplay I meant to shoot in 2017 and have had a recent burst of inspiration about how to merge those drafts and what I have learned from novelizing that project and maybe generate a script that leads the audience in more smoothly to the world it creates.  I don’t want to drop people right into strangeness, but rather have them not realize they have entered it until they are already somewhat invested in it.  There is a temptation to spend the day watching old Colombo episodes, puttering around, and eating too much during the time of the pandemic.  But I still want to follow through on my projects, especially those I have been pushing up the mountain for more than ten years.

Writing, drawing shots, reading…. but this short project just had such a simple premise that it couldn’t choke under its own weight.  If I were to do it over I would not use a cell at all.  I wasn’t even 100% sure that was a stipulation or whether it was just a suggestion that everyone has the minimum resources to make some kind of short.  At least the contest got me up early one day and had me solving little problems and causing them. At least we were not required to type the script on a Smith-Corona.