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).

 

In Praise of the Eighties

As interesting as it is to read Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it gets one core point very wrong. It presents the common argument that the late sixties and early Seventies were a golden era of authentic director driven auteur movies with grit and balls which ended because Jaws and Star Wars replaced with calculated catharsis and caused Hollywood to suddenly start wanting to make money. And this led to the Eighties playing it safe with formulaic movies in a decade serious cinephiles consider a low point in the art form. Instead of a thumbs down, I give that theory a sturdy middle finger.

Universal was firing Steven Spielberg virtually every day during the over-long making of Jaws, and he suffered a nervous breakdown on the plane ride home after the main Martha’s Vinyard shoot concluded. (Or just after setting up the final shot of the shark explosion which he left someone else to supervise so he could make a clean getaway from the overworked crew.) Twentieth Century Fox refused to extend the shooting of Star Wars by even a couple of weeks, so George Lucas had to delegate a few more units to get pick-up shots needed, and returned from England with chest pains and a trip to the hospital. The finished movie could only be booked into 39 venues for its May 25, 1977 debut, some of which had to be coerced illegally by Fox to accept Star Wars or they could not have The Other Side of Midnight. People don’t often realize when they have a good thing.

The Auteur Theory promoted by the likes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, as well as Francois Truffaut – especially in his famous interviews with master self-promoter Alfred Hitchcock – was good for directors and helped movie critics oversimplify the discussion of cinema. To this day, a Generation X (successful or still aspiring) filmmaker would have benefited from this culture and this idea because it made us want to direct movies. Frank Capra wrote (with some collaboration) an autobiography called The Name Above the Title. Peter Bogdanovich eventually wrote a book called Who the Devil Made It.

Great movies like Apocalypse Now or less celebrated films like Heaven’s Gate had an air of director-gone-made, whether or not that was fair. A Coppola or Altman or Cimino had more rope to hang themselves. A movie that cost more than planned or that went over schedule was considered self-indulgent. And if the pace of the finished picture was not brisk, that made it all seem too self-serious. This was truly the natural and inevitable end of elevating the director and praising a vision as automatic art worthy of high risk. People who exclusively watched recent American movies, and nothing from before his or her own birth year, and had no interest in reading subtitles might look at the Nineteen Eighties as a safe, programmed time for cinema. But it was not.

The craft of cinema, and the direction of the audience, became refined. The narratives had less meandering. Home video in the form of Betamax and VHS or example brought out studio archives of older films for the young audience to catch up on. The theatrical releases are too much to list, so the years are summed up with only a sampling of titles.

1980 brought The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Altman’s ramshackle but somehow oddly charming Popeye, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Caddyshack, Used Cars by Robert Zemeckis, Nine to Five, Stir Crazy, The Fog, My Bodyguard, Fame, Flash Gordon and for the serious there was Kashemusha, Lion of the Desert, The Big Red One, The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, and Coal Miner’s Daughter.

1981 hit us with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, Das Boot, Superman II, On Golden Pond, Stripes, Arthur, An American Werewolf in London, For Your Eyes Only, Time Bandits, Body Heat by Lawrence Kasdan, The Four Seasons by Alan Alda, The Evil Dead, Reds, Thief, Quest for Fire, My Dinner with Andre, Escape from New York, Scanners, Heavy Metal, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, Porky’s, Clash of the Titals, Ragtime, Taps, Gallipoli, and Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar.

1982 gave us too many choices, including Sophie’s Choice itself. Arguably My Favorite Year. E.T., Blade Runner, Gandhi, First Blood, The Thing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Pink Floyd The Wall, Tootsie, The Verdict, Young Doctors In Love, Poltergeist, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Conan The Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, Victor Victoria, Night Shift, Diner, Missing, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Grey Fox, The World According to Garp, Annie, Tron, 48 Hours, Rocky III, Creepshow, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Bad Boys (the one with Sean Penn).

1983 was crazy with Return of the Jedi, Scarface, A Christmas Story, The Right Stuff, Trading Places, national Lampoon’s Vacation, Terms of Endearment, The Outsiders and Rumblefish from Coppola, Wargames, The Meaning of Life, Never Cry Wolf, The Big Chill, Videodrome, Silkwood, Christine, Zelig, Strange Brew, two Bond movies Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, Sudden Impact, Tender Mercies, Flashdance, Lone Wolf McQuade, Brainstorm, Educating Rita, Cujo and The Hunger.

1984 offered 1984, Amadeus, Once Upon a Time in America, Paris, Texas, This is Spinal Tap, The Killing Fields, Blood Simple, Repo Man, Streets of Fire, Sixteen Candles, The Natural, Top Secret, Gremlins, Dreamscape, The Last Starfighter, Places in the Heart, Romancing the Stone, Starman, 2010, Splash, Purple Rain, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Footloose, Dune, Revenge of the Nerds, Red Dawn, Johnny Dangerously and a host of brand names that are still generating content: Ghostbusters, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Beverly Hills Cop, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, The Neverending Story indeed.

1985 introduced Back to the Future, Witness, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Goonies, Explorers, Brazil by Terry Gilliam, Ran by Kurasawa, The Color Purple by Spielberg. Silverado, Clue, After Hours, Mishima, Fright Night, Silver Bullet, Legend, Fletch, A Room with a View, Commando, Cocoon, Pale Rider, Day of the Dead, To Live and Die in L.A., Better off Dead, Re-Animator, Death of a Salesman, Weird Science, Real Genius, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

1986 ground out Stand By Me, Platoon, Aliens, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Blue Velvet, The Fly, Labyrinth, Star trek IV The Voyage Home, The Mission, The Name of the Rose, Highlander, Big Trouble in Little China, Hannah and Her Sisters, Top Gun, Manhunter, An American Tail, Back to School, Pretty In Pink, Short Circuit, Crossroads, Three Amigos, Crocodile Dundee, Howard the Duck, Armed and Dangerous, Lucas, Gung Ho, The Hitcher, Down By Law, Hoosiers, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, At Close Range, The Decline of the American Empire, Hearbreak Ridge, Eight Million Ways to Die, A Better Tomorrow, The Color of Money, 52 Pick-Up, About Last Night, Sid and Nancy, Ruthless People, Children of a Lesser God, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Night Mother, Little Shop of Horrors, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Legal Eagles, Iron Eagle, and Nothing in Common.

1987 saw these flicks: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Full Metal Jacket, The Untouchables, The Princess Bride, Robocop, Empire of the Sun, Good Morning, Vietnam, Lethal Weapon, Wall Street, Predator, Babette’s Feast, The Last Emperor, The Lost Boys, Wings of Desire, Evil Dead II, Moonstruck, Withnail and I, Spaceballs, Dirty dancing, Angel Heart, Raw, Some Kind of Wonderful, Cry Freedom, Hellraiser, Fatal Attraction, Adventures on Babysitting, La Bamba, No Way Out, Roxanne, Barfly, InnerSpace, Hope and Glory, The Living Daylights, and Overboard.

1988 Die hard, Beetlejuice, Misissippi Burning, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow, The Land Before Time, Big, The Thin Blue Line, Running On Empty, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The last Temptation of Christ, The Naked Gun, Midnight Run, Heathers, Beaches, Coming To America, Child’s Play, Dead Ringers, Stand and Deliver, Oliver and Company, Scrooged, The Accused, Bull Durham, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Colors, Frantic, Working Girl, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Torch Song Trilogy, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

1989 presented Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, When Harry Met Sally, Christmas Vacation, Do the Right Thing, The Little Mermaid, Dead Poets Society, Batman, Field of Dreams, Glory, My Left Foot, Back to the Future Part II, Steele Magnolias, Lean on Me, Major League, Say Anything, Uncle Buck, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Born on the Fourth of July, Shirley Valentine, Parenthood, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Lethal Weapon II, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Road House, Roadkill, Always, Roger and Me, Henry V, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, License to Kill, Pet Semetary, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Ghostbusters II.

How often would the average person, even an avid movie fan, want to go to the cinema in a given year? If every week, maybe each year does not add up to 52 movies as listed here but this only scratches the surface. We were still beginning to have other options, besides Cable TV and home video rentals.

If someone in 2020 is Thirty Years Old, that sampling of titles might not be part of their viewing experience, and a few of them are prerequisites for later titles. The dialogue might be part of the vernacular even today. They may seem quaint without feeling inferior. Today people throw around the word “problematic.” The World According to Garp, one of my favourite films, has John Lithgow playing Roberta Muldoon, a trans person, Short Circuit has a white actor playing a scientist from India. Both Octopussy and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom have a strange meal being served in India as discomfort humor. Either you can reconcile yourself to a movie not being all things to each person, or you can whip out a word ending with ist or phobe and further reduce their gravity. Were there too many inventors, too many Rube Goldberg devices? Too many sequels? Well there is nothing inherently wrong with building on a premise. Even The Gods Must Be Crazy got a sequel, despite having the unusual story of an African Bushman trying to find the purpose of a pop bottle that has landed near him as if dropped from Heaven.

The Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts

One thing likely to go wrong making movie is that it can turn into a money pit. The other danger is that it can be for the writer-director especially a death of a thousand cuts, if a collaborator is not in sync or there is a dispute over the tone and content of a screenplay.

Personally, although I understand this and how common the principle can be, and that I have dodged a few bullets by avoiding or cancelling a project when it was clear that something was afoot, I have spun my wheels for three years imagining what kind of pep talk or statement could have been made earlier on to eliminate even the idea of a power struggle or the project being co-opted by someone else.

The mantra must be “we want the same result or we don’t.” To begin with the end in mind means to see the finished movie in your mind’s eye, even if the idea of a vision sounds pretentious. It is either worth the journey or it isn’t. Your work will be vindicated or it can’t because it is no longer your work. I know that I have no interest in recording improvisations as a replacement for the writing I have tweaked and fine tuned over a long stretch. To open the floodgates on that would be a problem. To allow someone who left the project over a problematic joke to sneak back in under someone else’s say-so and instead have that line or idea cut from the script would be a grating trade-off.

Those who may have an advantage are people who just have outlines and place-holder dialogue they expect to be “improved” by a cast. Such a project would be about building a community and offering a forum for actors to do what they want and to be a leader by association. That is potentially the successful route, and I have seen it happen. Actually knowing how you want your movie to go and fine-tuning your dialogue might set you up for a longer road and more obstacles. The more specific your goal and the more objectives within it, the harder it is to achieve. If your goal is just to have your credit on something, regardless of how much of it came from you, doors open more easily.

Getting people to watch a finished movie, let alone pay to see it, is almost as hard as getting them to read a script. From this point forward I may even complicate it further by novelizing any script I do, or at least making a prose short story that can be absorbed as its own thing and that can be a more digestible introduction to a concept or plot or characters than the simple screenplay which just seems to be asking for financing. But in the end, you don’t want bigger personalities to get into a pissing contest and have more A-type personalities and Beta you to death as each line or scene or shot becomes a hill to die on. Better to say up front that it is okay if someone doesn’t want to do the project and the priority is that they trust the material and yourself otherwise it will be months or years of psychological abuse and only the superficial appearance of accomplishment and a monument to your own lack of influence or debate skill.

Best to keep your team small and focused rather than be drawn and quartered by opposing goals pulling you and the project in every direction. In the past I have let things go from specific to general and the overall impact has been weak. Better to keep the tension in the cut and fuss over the little things that add up. And serve fair notice at the start that this is the way it has to go. Just recording something is not enough.

Look at These Damn Shorts !

Every now and then I like to sweep out the attic and cough up old dust bunnies of shorts from over ten years ago. Some people are wise enough to bury their old work. I have to remind myself to get back onto the horse and make more fresh content. Also, to overcome a sense of demoralization. Sometimes you need a kick in the back of the pants.
https://www.youtube.com/user/PornotheClownDOTcom
The original short from 2007 generated for Daryl Gold’s Hard Liquor and Porn Comedy Festival was originally uploaded on my personal youtube account which has mostly home movies. It has over sixty thousand views. It would be great to import those views into this upload, were it possible. But frankly I look at many of these hastily made shorts and see only the flaws. Even though I have observed the laughs coming across.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biUUuY6H_fk
In 2008 we cobbled together a simple false documentary in the style of Zeitgeist, called Shitegeist, using simple narration and slightly doctored stock images to create the mythology of Porno the Clown. Much of it was too lo-res. It was taken down at one point because it must have ruffled someone’s feathers. In hindsight, more shorts should have been made right away. Most of the videos were done in 2009. The stile of this 2008 experiment might have led to regular update videos using audio and a simple file graphic of Porno the Clown as if he is a foreign corespondant so that timely videos could easily be done. But this was resisted by Jay Ould who played Porno the Clown. It would have kept the charactrer active. Also, initially Jay had mentioned a potential investor in a series of shorts so I had generated a number of outlines. About half of those actually got shot. The investor did not pan out, but I still wrote out full scripts for most of them and we shot what we could for fun. But Shitegeist was an interesting minimalist experiment.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5L9Y7VgAho
My intention had been to do a seasonal short for each holiday. We did get one done for Father’s Day, in which Jay’s own son Cai plays someone claiming to be the offspring of Porno the Clown. It ends with a kind of PSA that Jay was skeptical about but he had to admit once it was executed it worked out. Unfortunately a number of other holiday videos did not come to fruition.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Etx53nTrzCA
This is an example of one of the monologues I wrote for Porno the Clown. Production wise, very simple. It may not be satisfying for Jay. But for the writer it is fun. I had pitched a one man show for Jay to do at the Fringe Festival but he was not interested. I think the idea of memorizing a high volume of my writing is a pain in the butt. There may yet be a Porno the Clown play, or more likely the play and eventual feature (already written and refined) may become a varient that salvages much of what I wrote and keeps PTC off screen. That is a back up plan if Jay doesn’t want to do something as written. A 2017 tentative approach to a feature was cancelled by me after it turned out that much of the support was for an improvisation cluster f**k version that I had no interest in. I’d want to shoot only my script with every problematic joke intact.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EYVblDLv2k
There were a few segments generated for an interview skit I wrote which might be the best attempt at a Porno the Clown short, in terms of getting through jokes. I recall having cue cards. When the exterior sidewalk shots were being done, an allusion to the strut of Saturday Night Fever, a little girl approached Jay who was in full PTC costume and she asked his name. He came up with, “Uh, Joe-Joe the Clown.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDxBQUlUBKk
This video is kind of a curiousity. I wrote a short called Orgy Etiquette as part of the collection for PTC based on a couple of other stabs I had taken at the concept, a monologue and some other iteration. I remmeber being at a party and mentioning it to the late Tony Rosato of SCTV who said it was a great premise. Eventually the written versions had quite a few guidelines listed for getting through an orgy, pulled out of thin air because I would never have the slightest idea of that world. Like any Porno the Clown thing I had written it was the abomination of speculation coming from a repressed Catholic. Then I believe Jay had a meeting with Dave McKay and they adapted those writings into a two-hander live audience participation skit that I recorded with a camcorder at the Comedy Bar. This might be the one grey area or room for confusion about my feature where someone might get the idea that I was open to that being improvised. Nope. But this short piece is fun and most likely the other full versions of the premise might not have been done.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9xSa66FskM
There is a short that might be buried somewhere in the hard-to-access Facebook videos of my private account, Porno the Clown meets Bad Babysitter. That one was based on an idea from Jay. It somewhat follows the format of other scenes and has an okay structure but was thrown together under time pressure. It is not on this channel because months after shooting it the actress stated she wanted to go out for modeling or other parts and was concerned that her name turned up in searche engines for this short and she needed to shake it. Unfortunately she was not straight with us and initially claimed her release form was not valid because she was under age. I initially was filled with dread, until I fact checked it and discovered she had lied and was actually not under age at all. Still, I deleted whatever I could and removed tags with her name and so on. The short played at a Salon Du Refuses off shoot of Daryl Gold’s Hard Liquor and Porn Comedy Festival. I recall the actress was an outstanding illustrator. I wish her well. This link likely won’t work unless you are logged into Facebook.
https://www.facebook.com/818445561/videos/143000125561/extid=5I5cINV1XsOVMMN8
Those are just a few of the Porno the Clown videos that had been generated, basically highlights. I’d like to see them get a new life and some attention. The feature that is built around him will in one form or another be brought to life, even if I have to resort to substituting a new character so the name Porno the Clown doesn’t spook too many people. It is an uphill battle for an idea that I had thought was just crass enough to be commercial. Also, much depends on whether I can cast people who get on with learning dialogue or whether there is push back from people who insist on improvisation. I have no love of Theater Sports as they call it and keeping myself off balance with an influx of chaos. I mean, I’d rather not even call it a comedy if it comes to that. Too many experts on comedy. I wouldn’t want performances that seem like they are aware it is comedy. I guess we’ll see.

Mission Statement

Welcome to the production. Feel free to fearlessly ask “stupid” questions. It is better to admit not knowing or understanding something than to pretend and cause a miscommunication or lavish time on a dead end chore. To save time, however, please be advised that the director has made hundreds of shorts and has absorbed years of behind the scenes information, from film school to compulsive study of DVD commentary tracks and issues of American Cinematographer for pleasure and has been at it since 1984. There may be many ways a director might approach a shoot and only one way that is chosen as most appropriate.

Please read the screenplay. If your job is visual, please also look at relevant storyboards and maps or floor plans that have been generated. There are so many moving parts on a movie that in a war against Murphy’s Law it makes sense to have a fixed point of reference. Do not expect any drastic change from the screenplay or the story-boarded shooting plan. You can look at it as an experiment in how close the finished movie can be to the vision. We can expect cast and crew to grow bored with repetition of the material and for any variation to seem refreshing for that group, but the audience will only likely hear these things once and so the inside joke of a crew reaction should not be treated as “best idea wins.” Best to press onward and make sure the original written or planned version still gets done.

If you have expectations about the production, please disclose these. Most will be benign. Maybe experience, or hoping someone you know can be on screen, or being able to show an item you have created. But also keep in mind that screen time is carefully measured and a specific talent will have to be considered for its place. If an actor has experience improvising but no knack for learning written dialogue, that person should not have a speaking part. The goal is not to erode the scripted lines with improvised substitutes.

Physical safety must be the first concern, and safety will overrule any direction. Meanwhile, this movie will not be what colleges often call an intellectual “safe space” in terms of ideas and opinions. If someone finds the screenplay or a scene or line in it problematic, that is because the writer’s most satisfying content is designed to provoke. It will not be replaced or mutated into a woke alternative. If the process of learning lines, rehearsal, and getting the pacing right cramps the style of anyone they might want to consider opting out of the project as early as possible. We don’t want people to feel horrible about the movie they are in, and more importantly the integrity of the writer or director’s vision will be preferred over whims and sensitivities or peccadilloes that would undermine the objectives and subversive intentions of the movie. There will be something to offend everybody. The priority is for people to make an informed choice about being involved with the movie.

The script can help determine who is the right fit for it.

Leverage and Support

“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” – quote attributed to various people

If someone is offering only the unacceptable, compromised, neutered version of what you plan, they aren’t offering anything.

A person can turn over what was said and left unsaid in a meeting or other interaction for years until they break the code and find out the truth under all of the imagined negotiation and clarity and timing they could have summoned to keep imagined support for a project.

One collaborator might have a pattern you choose to ignore. That might be giving out a different message than your own so there is built in disaster down the line. It might be as simple as your own stated plan being specific and his or hers being more general. Your associate’s goal might be, “Let’s make a movie for me to star in.” Your goal as a writer-director might be, “Let’s make a movie that follows my script and my directorial designs.”

An investor or actor may give an ultimatum like, “I can only be involved in this if you cut this line or joke or image I find problematic.” Or, “I will only be involved if you let the actors ad lib and don’t insist they learn dialogue or rehearse.” Or, “I will only be involved if you hire a cinematographer and let that person call your shots.” In each of those cases, compliance will only result in a compromised version of your film. It might even open the door to a clusterf**k and a cacophony of nonsense that has to be reigned in and that replaces what you had intended. If your most satisfying writing is problematic, and you are going to be responsible as a writer director for the finished product anyway, it may as well be your own instincts and whimsy that is judged and not something imposed on you.

The potential collaborator negotiating or offering or imposing something is not offering to help realize your vision, the version of the project that is worth whatever time you have spend developing and refining it and whatever work remains to actually shoot it. They are offering to control your work.

The expected response to such a statement is that it is naive or amateurish to worry about such things. But especially in a politically charged climate, it would be easy for someone to wind up credited for something that no longer represents his or her judgement or taste or point of view on the world while at the same time not even catering to any mainstream sensibility. Remember the moment in Ed Wood where he claims, “Everybody likes” his script or project and his girlfriend tells him he has surrounded himself with freaks.

If someone offers to be a producer and that person has not read the script, that’s a red flag. If they are offering to talk to some unnamed “whale” about financing, their heart might be in the right place but it is best to make sure the project is not misrepresented and have the conflict right there. Your only control or leverage is that the other person doesn’t really have leverage.

If you get them acting in your movie or bringing some support but only on condition that the movie is diluted, even the smallest disagreement or compromise might be like one small hole in the bottom of a boat; instead of rowing and making progress you will then be spending time bailing water just as an improvisation based cast might use up precious time on a location trying to fix something that is not broken – the script. If you can’t use story-boarded shots motivated by the dynamics and psychology of each beat in a scene because the dialogue is in flux, then you are forced to cross-shoot basic close-ups of the whole thing in the kind of coverage anyone could do and there is no directorial stamp. So as credited writer-director you will be generating “pictures of people talking” instead of your carefully considered use of the frame and the words being spoken will not be your own so both writing and directing have been subverted by the imposition of compromise.

The vision of the finished movie – imperfect though it may be – that comes from following your latest draft of the script and your story-boarded shot plan is in your mind’s eye at the end of the tunnel and worth the journey and sleepless nights to come. You can honestly take responsibility for it. But being thrown off balance or demoralized by a perspective that is not compatible makes that vision dissolve into a jumble. Some will argue that as long as you are getting paid you may as well play along and be professional, but in micro-budget movies and your first features it is worth being mindful that even in a small pond there could be leeches. Your project might look like a forum for an art form someone else values over cinema, and you may only need performers who have utility and skill to breathe life into the dialogue you have already prepared. You don’t want to pass the buck and blame anyone if a movie turns out mediocre. Better to dig your heels in early on and drill down into any point of disagreement. Let everyone make informed choices. They might not all want to read 100 pages just to say no. But it is better to make no movie at all than to make the wrong movie that will stand as a mockery of what was intended. Make your own mistakes and not someone else’s.

Perceptions of Screenwriters or Directors

“So, you want to pass yourself off as a writer-director,”

–  A-hole College Instructor, 1994

Improvisation is not a further draft of a script or a further polish.  It is reversion to either brain-storming or first drafts.  But there is a spin that suggests a script is further evolved.

The mind games never stop.  We are told that the perception of a screenwriter (other then, say, Aaron Sorkin or The Cohen Brothers) is one where the credit may as well have an asterisk beside it because there is a constant drum beat of the narrative that not only will a script be changed by other writers, executives, directors and actors but that is should. Robert McKee can have his own contradictory remarks collapse back onto each other in the same interview.  We can only take what we like and leave the rest.

There can be a constant gnashing of psychological gears over the expectations of mediocrity that greet anything creative.  There are, of course, the Are You Covered? ads for supposed directing workshops that promise that you do not have to have talent to be a director.  This kind of makes me insane, so it plays in a loop in my head as I try to sleep.  You MUST be talented as a stand-up comic or musician in order to be a movie director but you do not have to be talented about movie directing, says the pitch.

It should comfort nobody who hopes to direct, because they all think they have something to give, beyond protecting a script if they are also the writer.

What I want and need to be satisfied as a screenwriter is to make sure actors are the right fit and that they can learn the dialogue as written and bring their personality to it in the realization without resorting to improvisation.  I would rather have a reviewer say, “Gee that writer William has a tin ear.  His dialogue is clunky.  He is only saved by the inflection given by the actor.”  Fine.  At least the “Written by” will not feel fraudulent.

We are in a time where playing the lottery of trying to get a screenplay read let alone bought much less optioned or purchased for an amount that allows dignity.  May as well expect to make a movie on your own.

What I want and need to direct a movie and not feel like I am bullshitting is to go through my usual process of storyboarding the whole script.  How I use the frame and imply a cut are tools of direction and not just elements or chores to delegate.  A storyboard sequence could certainly be re-illustrated by an artist simply to make it look more professional.  But the psychology of the frame as applied in each image or each camera position should come from the director.  We direct the attention of the audience.

I know, this is where the Robert Altman fans chime in with his decision not to show the audience where to look and to just plop them down in front of chaos and atmosphere. Except for the Last Supper shot in MASH and a couple of uncharacteristic transitions in Short Cuts, I have never been a fan of what might be called Altman’s directing.  The good news for people who do like that kind of thing is that in today’s digital world you can just go out and make that kind of thing.  Maybe not with the biggest character actors of the day, but it can be done.  And apart from wearing an ascot and a cowboy had and having a confident stance, you may indeed not need actual MOVIE directing talent.  You might come from theater and just let your DP choose where to put the camera.  I might not be eager to see the resulting movie, and I could never be satisfied doing that, but it can be done.

It might seem to lack generosity and curiosity and flexibility to look at it the way I do.

To say okay a little bit of improvisation might be allowed might be like saying one small hole is okay in the bottom of the boat, and in practical terms what that means is that instead of watching the horizon and where you are headed your attention is preoccupied with bailing water.  If a screenplay has been written and polished, the writer might like to hear his or her own dialogue performed in the final movie.  Along the way, it might be heard given its day in court for rehearsals.  But if a project attracts people with the false representation that improvisation and riffing is necessary, this may be taken as permission to paraphrase or to improvise entirely over whatever banter has been designed.  A stylized run of lines might be labor intensive and not as satisfying for the creativity or the ego of the actor.  It is tough to get the Genie back into the bottle if a project has been misrepresented.  Most if not all scripts I have written will have elements that will be called problematic by those who like to use that word five times per day.  So I will be especially averse to improvisation which might easily pave over the very elements of a script that made it worth writing in the first place.

If someone seems to be on board with a project but have a hidden intention of foisting improvisation onto it, or of imposing a cinematographer who has no regard for storyboards, this will mean an uphill battle.  It is never far from my thought that Peter Farrelly said of directing Dumb and Dumber that they told the crew to save their asses and that they knew nothing.  He said that if they crew thinks a director believes himself or herself to be Stanley Kubrick they will make the director’s life hell.  So it may not help that so often when I have made films over the past thirty five years I have organically folded people into a crew or inherited them from someone else.  There may be no way around the Kubrick thing, except saying to your team that the reason you storyboard is to “organize my thoughts.”  In my case this is true, but I also want to be able to look at finished sequences and compare them to the storyboard so they match.  The one collaborator nobody wants to work with is Murphy of Murphy’s Law, whom I mention time and again.  What can go wrong?  People not wanting to make the same movie.  People being offended by jokes or subject matter that are the reason to make the movie. People who are not up to the tasks of their job.

I don’t know.  There is always more to say on this.  It is a cycle to break.  There might not be a short cut solution.  It means knowing people at least reconcile themselves to what you have written.  It means maybe someone being willing to read 100 pages to make an informed choice.  It means any crew member being willing to follow direction and use storyboards as a guide.  I mean we all take home movies and don’t plan those.  We do personal documentaries and those are just go-with-the-flow and we see the ups and the downs of that.  So that process of discovery and the matching frustration is experienced. If storyboarding is the way to go, to persuade yourself that there is indeed a movie and a place for thoughtful directorial placement of the frame, then you can stick to your guns with a clear conscience.  You are not afraid of spontaneity.  You instead need to own each frame and its context.  There may be a point of saying THIS is movie directing and THAT is not.  Wide establishing angle, close-ups of each, over shoulder and reverse over shoulder is just recording or documenting the content.  It requires no visual interpretation.  It is the minimum.  Shooting scenes with no dialogue might be the real test of directorial ability.

And yet, people will grab a camera or a cell phone and just maybe keep people in focus and get something they can slap a title onto and get into a festival because of subject matter and have it branded “important” whether there is directorial talent or intention or not.  So go figure.  Slapdash approaches can open doors.  People “passing themselves off” as writers or directors can attract those who actually want to come up with shots or make up their own dialogue, so there is a perception of success and insider conspiracy among some who do it for a living. I can’t say don’t do that, because people get away with it.   But I know that for myself a burden I carry will be the determination to make sure I am bringing my own writing to life and calling my own shots.

 

 

 

 

 

Chadwick Boseman and these times

Happened to see the death notice of Chadwick Boseman on Facebook, age 43, colon cancer, but had to search right where I stood for outside reportage about it because the news did not seem real.  It was shocking enough when Black Panther dissolved in the Snap, but at least he came back in Endgame. . . only to die of cancer. I had respected Boseman’s performances especially in as James Brown and before that as Jackie Robinson in 42. Now he is gone at 43.

It may say something that my first (conscious) reaction is worry about how this will hurt the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And who will they get to be the new king of Wakanda ? But I had to shake this off as embarrassing preoccupation with something that might be childish.  Even though I respect anything that is well done. The MCU had added up to something in scope and execution.  There might be even less enthusiasm about the next planned phase of Marvel films, since they had peaked.  But Black Panther II and the next Spider-man were most likely sure things.

No doubt this is one more demoralizing event in the year 2020, following so much ongoing strain caused by the failure to root out racists from Police and the resulting murders most notably of George Floyd.  I know I have added a few Facebook friends over the past months but I rarely check the number.  I see that it is down by four from the last count.  I do remember one filmmaker and singer who I had gone to see perform a few years back and who had been editor of a magazine I wrote for; one day she posted as her status, “I am in a mood to unfriend.”  I think a few people commented and I said something like suggesting less time on-line.  I can only speculate over what would cause the deletion. It may have been that she was fed up with what seemed like empty virtue signalling, most notably the number of accounts – including mine – with a black screen for a day. But I can only fret over that so much.  If someone chooses to communicate ineffectively, there is nothing much to do about it. We can only ask just how valued was that friend and how much were we in turn valued that these nuances of social media make such a difference.  People throw each other away easily.

For someone to prove he or she is not being disingenuous, presumably they would have to donate their life savings to BLM. Few if any of us can or should be doing that.  The George Floyd murder by Officer Derek Chauvin is partly due to police reform plans of Obama being cancelled by his successor in the White House.  That compounds the significance of it. People who ignored or laughed off Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police violence in the form of kneeling instead of standing for the National Anthem can ask themselves whether the current forms of protest that resulted from inaction were worth it.  We might not fill our social media with darkness or avoid posting anything personal, but we might feel a more personal gut punch about the death of a celebrity.  I still have not made a point of watching the 8:46 video of Floyd’s death, because I already know what it is.  But I will continue watching the movies of Chadwick Boseman and reading the various tributes that circulate.

People can mostly react and there is little if any reaction to take.  The villain in this case was cancer.  Many of us have lost a loved one to cancer, so that is already personal, relatable, and not at all confined to discussions of race and intolerance.

 

Audio: The Fault in Their Star Wars

This is an audio rant I did about the last Star Wars trilogy and the machinations behind it.  Just 12 minutes.  Relatively painless to listen to.

A couple of my letters are read in this podcast.  24 minutes in, Star Wars and the new Betty Gilpin action movie The Hunt are mentioned.    A little bit of overlap with some of what I talk about in the above video.  But I think the wording and the reading is better here.  50 minutes in, the public domain status of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Canada is mentioned and how this could result in exploring a variety of Bond iterations.

An old Youtube Channel is back up

This channel contains comical shorts and monologues related to a character I wrote and directed called Porno the Clown.  It has been up since 2009, and the character has been brought to life since 2007.  May do more shorts as reality gets less crazy.  It was just a name on a piece of paper back in 1992 but it was ready to be written once I worked with Jay Ould on a publicity stunt and I saw how at ease he was with material that would seem creepy with the wrong delivery.  Anyway, happy that reason won the day this time, after the appeal was re-reviewed.  If you have a moment please go and subscribe or like or watch something. No pressure.

https://www.youtube.com/user/PornotheClownDOTcom

 

 

Force of Nature

Not to be confused with the Sandra Bullock movie Forces of Nature.

Recently rented a DVD of Force of Nature about a heist that happens during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  Entertaining and brisk, well contained and efficient, script not lacking in humor or tension. Plenty of critics damn the movie with such faint praise before whining that there is disrespect using the Puerto Rico storm as a backdrop for a caper.  The same argument could be made about Titanic being a backdrop for a romance.  The critics or crickets then pad their word count with hostile asides about Mel Gibson who has a supporting role as a crusty old cop being looked after by his daughter, Kate Bosworth, who is a doctor.

Most of the movie is contained around an apartment complex and concerns a crook played by David Zayas (Dexter, The Expendables) and his accomplices trying to get at a stash of paintings.  A pair of cops – one who still believes in the job, Jess, Stephanie Cayo who is excellent and seems to be new to English-language movies and the jaded cop with tragedy in his past, Cardillo played by Emile Hirsch are the center of the movie as they have to urge a few residents to vacate the building due to the hurricane.  The cynical arguments have a ring of truth to them.  The blatantly foreshadowed ending may be predictable but it is also fun to anticipate. The director of this film, Michael Polish, does an effective job without drawing attention to himself.  I believe the storm is happening though it is mostly implied as the focus is on characters.

Apparently Hirsch has some scandal in his own career recently, which I only know about because of busybody critics dutifully keeping dirt alive.  But the digs against Gibson are especially annoying.  Like his colleagues and friends who support him, Robert Downey Jr., Jodie Foster, Danny Glover, Darlene Love, Whoopie Goldberg, and Richard Donner to name a few, I want to see Mel continue with his current slate of movies as an actor and also as a director. I know The Passion 2 written by Randal Wallace will be crazy, as will his Wild Bunch remake.  The man was bashed and fell off the wagon and babbled whatever was in his unconscious after a couple of rabbis and others campaigned to have Apocalypto shelved by Disney.  The Passion resulted in zero antisemitic violence and was a success after being rejected around the town. So a lot of people were fuming over their own failure. Luckily, Disney relased Apocalpyto and it was a hit.  I would not have expected to like a movie about Mayans.  Jaguar Paw is a unique and compelling character.

A butt-hurt cop James Mee allegedly leaked the police report. When Gibson battled alcoholism, and bi-polar disorder, just as he was pulling his career back together, his ex-girlfriend Oksana recorded his phone rants and exploited his condition either caused by his meds or from not taking enough of them. Her sister leaked those audio files to RadarOnline, which was a disgrace. That cost us all a Viking movie written by Randal Wallace and directed by Mel Gibson, because Leonardo Dicaprio had to drop out after all of the heat caused by the rants.  That was around 2010, and that was about when Winona Rider shared a party anecdote from the Nineties about glib jokes made by Mel to her and a friend.  They read as mere jokes.  They were also denied at the time and then ten years later when someone at Variety decided to re-publish that old report to take advantage of the pandemic and racial sensitivity to really stick it to Mel.  Whoever had that brainstorm should be fired.  At the low point ten years ago, at least the first person to hire Mel was Robert Rodriguez for Machete Kills.  Then Stallone used him for Expendables 3.  He is still quite good on screen and few actors can get away with saying to an empty room, “I’m an asshole” quite the way Mel does in Force of Nature.

While on the subject, maybe go back and look at the first movie he did as a director, Man Without a Face.  It is odd that at the height of his fame and popularity he chose to do a movie about the town pariah.