Crawl

The Alexandre Aja remake Piranha 3D was effective enough that it inspires confidence in any new thing he directs. Regardless of the content, the direction is solid. He holds back information just enough with his choice of shot. I got around to watching one of his most recent flicks, Crawl, that involves a young woman who has been a competitive swimmer defying the authorities during a storm and returning to her father’s home to make sure he is okay. Barry Pepper is the father, and we are reminded that a couple of decades have passed since Saving Private Ryan. Together, along with would-be help from without, they fend off alligators that are taking advantage of a flood.

Most of the movie is contained in one house, mostly in the crawlspace or basement, and while the tenancy is to “open up” movies the fact is that the most effective horror and suspense involves isolation. The Shining, Misery, most cabin in the woods movies, have a sense of being trapped and having to confront the problem at hand. From the ordinary opening scenes through the building crisis to the choice of music that plays under ending credits the movie is well thought out and presented. In earlier decades, it might be taken for granted. But the decisiveness of Aja takes a bsic premise and keeps it, beat for beat, pumping along. It is not Jaws but it is more Jaws than Jaws 3 or Jaws the Revenge. It has less humor than his Piranha movie, but it is still quite solid entertainment.

Letting a Screenplay Go

Had a recent phone conversation with a local independent film producer I know, and it involved his anecdote about a writer he had met who wanted him to produce a film he had written but not to direct it.  The writer, despite having no directing credits, intended to direct.  “So,” my friend told this guy, “You want me to do the work of producing while you jerk off directing?”  I didn’t comment on that characterization and I think I only suggested maybe the writer should make some shorts and become confident about his directing and maybe put people at ease with samples of work.

What I didn’t think to say until after he conversation had wrapped was that  I can identify with the writer.  I also only want a producer to produce.  The right person should be in the right position.  Someone business oriented and who is a born producer is ideal to produce.  If that person gets the money and resources together, often times that person will install himself/herself as director whether or not there is a knack for the psychology of the frame and the displacement impact of a cut or the progression of shots in a sequence.  The craft of movie directing is under constant attack from the “coverage” sensibility that makes recording of a scene something rote and generic.

A producer with more contacts than the writer can also get away with using that leverage for arbitrary changes.  Too often what the “buyer” of a script (which may as well just be called the receiver in low budget filmmaking, where the value of a script might be more than the total budget of the film so there is no chance of getting that figure) might only want to see that the heavy lifting is there in terms of story and continuity.  But as much work as a writer puts into that, much of it is about adhering to formats of storytelling that are long established. The dialogue might be where the writer’s voice or style comes in, and filmmakers as well as actors might often feel free to trade out the written word for a paraphrasing or eliminate it all together.

If that happens, the originally intended writer-director has dropped a notch to screenwriter without getting a huge pay out and will not see the writing brought to life because now it is changed often arbitrarily and if enough has been changed (on whomever’s whim) the credit itself may now be shared with someone else.  The dangers would be greater if the screenwriter came onto a project embellishing someone else’s initial blurb or TV Guide summary.  A year can be spent contributing to fleshing out someone else’s idea, and in the end someone else gets credit and someone else gets paid.

If you have a fear about story ideas being stolen, the cold comfort you will get from far too many low budget directors and more experienced filmmakers is, “Well there are no original ideas.”  This is another reason to guard your dialogue and other quirks that make the script uniquely your own.  A filmmaker might look at a script as something that should just lay out the foundations and it should be straight line so that the performances and presentation can be the fun or wavy-line element.  This is the same principle of casting improvisation actors or live comedy actors who want to deviate and embellish rather than learn and rehearse dialogue, but even a comedy needs a grounded foundation and a sea level from most performers so the unusual element can stand out.

A writer can spend more time than anyone on a project and require the most personal connection and stamina to really bring something to it.  But as long as it is a buyer’s market, the most appropriate fit for the script might not be found.  The director should be the right fit, as should the casting.  If the wrong person makes an offer, and a desperate writer accepts it, the script will no longer be interpreted but instead it will be imposed upon and made to conform something that is not built into it.  An inexperienced writer with the right crew can realistically direct a movie as well as – if not better than – someone experienced who might have had a rote or “coverage” approach.  Not that I want to take the off-ramp to a tedious argument about what coverage is and how common it is.  (Wide establishing shot, close-ups of each character, “overs” or “dirty”  over-shoulder of each, maybe a cut-away shot, the goal being for the producer and editors to shape the scene according to their own whim and to not be limited by what the director wanted to emphasize.)

My own writing is typically “wavy line.”  That dictates a more subdued performance. And I might have something to offend everybody i one of my scripts, so if I work with someone who wants to play it safe the result will be luke warm and pointless.  Others might not have that purist sensibility.  And it might not apply to every script.  But people usually respect something to the extent that they paid for it.  If a writer is a pushover, differing to everybody else’s opinion, maybe their script didn’t stand for anything in the first place.  In  my case, I just want my gut impulses to be vindicated and I will not be vindicated if my decisions and my dialogue are traded out.  If a choice is six of one, half dozen of the other, then I want my own six to see the light of day and have its day in court.  Once I have a screenplay the way I want it, I now consider how to novelize it.  This doesn’t get the control issues out of my system.  It is just to flesh things out and serve notice that there is a version that can be enjoyed on its own. Screenwriting can be excellent but it is so common a challenge to take on that it gets little respect.  A stage play or a novel is given more credence.

A screenplay is really only worth writing to make money or to direct it.  You have to screen people, friends or strangers alike, to make sure they don’t need to piss in the soup.  If they don’t like your writing then you don’t have a leg to stand on with them other than floating the idea that you are savvy enough that simply stealing an idea can get their own variation slapped with a restraining order and their own reputation with investors destroyed.  You may record a table reading of your script, but KEEP THE DIRECTIONS, even if dialogue ends up taking over a reading.  Make sure it is not a cold reading , because it DOESN’T MATTER if the actors are bored.  They should not have phones out texting or answering messages while waiting for a line and then letting the rhythm die because of a pause as cures are missed.  They have to comb through the script for speed bumps and identify them so what you record and what listeners experience is a decent and lively presentation of the script, not a lot of stumbling over lines that give the impression there was something wrong with the words. A good actor can dance trippingly through mediocre words and a personality can come across that makes the whole seem of a piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Control, Victimhood, and Strategy

Fail to plan, plan to fail, they say.  This goes for a responsible creative process but it can also be a toxic plotting in society overall. Some people will say to a movie director don’t storyboard because there are so many other angles to notice. James Mangold gave a long interview where he mentioned receiving photos from the stills department and thinking their images were better than what he had planned and shot, but then a stills photographer doesn’t have to worry about things cutting together and context and one person crouching for a low angle is easier than a full crew trying to achieve the same thing for what might just seem like a showy image.  Sometimes even storyboarding what seem to be bland shots in a sequence is better than just showing up and winging it when under the gun there will always be pressure to do the simple or standard thing for time. And storyboarding allows you to anticipate equipment needed to achieve a shot or how much vertical or horizontal information or depth you need in the physical space and how various colors or textures of costume and background will come together.  Knowing the relationship between those things is a measure of movie making skill.  To not care about that would make moviemaking drudgery and something worse – fraudulent posing: a status instead of a craft.  Better to think of the art you love and obsess over that than be drawn into the controversies of the moment.  There are plenty of booby traps.

It may be left out of the popular narrative today, but there is a history of survivors or victims of trauma or abuse eventually acting out against others and also a history of people who have felt restrained or confined exerting control over others. If this principle is kept in the back of your mind, much of what we see on the internet reads differently. Talk of de-platforming and smash the patriarchy and the death of the old guard has both specific worthy targets and a lot of collateral damage.
Pushing back against this one post at a time, one issue at a time, one person at a time is impractical. There is the threat of emotional blackmail, rejection as a person over an opinion, and implied (at least attempted) ostracism from a circle of friends, community or peer group involving your vocation. Any interjection which questions a presented view is not going to be assessed for its own reason but instead it will be categorized as to whether it indicates which imaginary oversimplified “side” the speaker must be on, it becomes about personalities involved and not principles. It is a binary, digital way of thinking, ones and zeros; you are part of the in group or an infiltrator from the out group.  If you post on a dissenting view on someone’s Facebook, they can easily curate their page and delete the remark.  If instead they choose to scold you and threaten un-friending,  they likely don’t value, care about you, in the first place. Don’t delete your post; just wait for her or him to unfriend you and then you should BLOCK the person so there won’t be interjections elsewhere. Also, this person will suddenly see that your controversial posts are now invisible to them.  Interesting to find this Russell Brand comment that “I am not my thoughts.”  Especially when people will hate or discard you for an idea shared.

Control tools used are terms meant to throw shade on a given input. Mansplain, whitesplain, check your priviledge, sexism, racism, global judgements of character based on the verbal DNA of a word or opinion you have presented. The natural impulse might be to flail and object with evidence that is already so commonly cited that it is deemed false in advance, like, “I’m not bigoted, I work with or have a friend or family member who belongs to that oversimplified category.” Defend a celebrity who is accused of something bad, and this will be played up as outrageous indifference to the alleged victims even if it is in fact a respect for getting to the truth. On-line, if someone is perpetuating a false narrative against Woody Allen the response can be a link to any of Robert B. Weide’s fact-checking articles about the case. But in person it means a lot of paraphrasing and repetition. Too much effort. You can end up fighting fans of Oprah and her friend Gayle King. And you don’t want to piss up that rope.
The endgame just might be something intolerable. It becomes clear that someone’s goal for example may not be to promote a system of equality but to invert the system – a process that is already well in progress – where your perceived advantage will work against you. A diversity of ideas may not be welcome but a statistical and superficial inclusion of skin tones or cultural affiliations and genders may help the metrics of public relations. If you love english word play of witty comebacks this compels casting people who are comfortable with speaking the language and won’t have cause the audience to strain through a strong accent. The same principle would exist in each language or culture around the world. Nobody wants an english-speaking actor butchering their home grown prose.
Some well intended movies get a sarcastic moniker, the “white saviour” trope. This despite the implied call for sacrifice in telling someone to “check his/her priviledge.” Or worse, to just step aside and not take up so much space in the discourse or in leadership or status regardless of your own perceived gifts or qualifications because you are somehow to blame for others who shared your complexion or gender did years ago. This is where some use the term “white guilt” which is not an obligation even if the spin suggests that it should be. Should all successful applicants for a job or grant or investment carry the stigma of affirmative action just because they belong to a supposed critic proof permanent victim class? And should all who are deemed  privileged suppose they are being magnanimous by choosing to work with someone from the underdog varieties of the moment?
If you are making a film, for example, and an actor or crew member may be a load bearing pillar of the project it is incumbent upon you to choose a reliable team. You can be raised in a mostly white small down and it is assumed that most of your family and friends are the same colour, same basic religion, and speaking the same language but also your criminals and bullies also share the same colour, claim similar supposed beliefs and speak a fashion of the same language. Even living in a multicultural city, if I were to make up a Homer Simpson revenge list the names on it would be people who have the same language and complexion.
If you are a straight white male, especially over age 30, don’t bother taking a film directing course. Too many people are interested in that vocation for the status and without an eye for ideally how to direct the audience with use of the frame. In Canada especially, there will be an ostensibly progressive prejudice that favours what are called “new voices,” in other words diverse or female, even though it could be expected that voices come from the writers more than the directors. To truly infuse cinema with new voices and discoveries would mean to grade screenplays and stories entirely on the written work so that it could come from any place and not require a writer to also be a strong producer or director or to move to a large city. A movie director should have a knack for using the frame for psychological impact and to support the moment or state of characters. This might not be a skill of a writer who might be more introverted.
A professional director who knows how to hustle and play the game but may not be especially talented with the direction itself may claim that every talent but direction is necessary to be a success – and they may prove it.

A director who climbed the ladder from Assistant Director work most often will sound like an Assistant Director, or Stage Manager, efficient and practical. They may enforce the rule that you must climb the union ladder. If that person is a musician or stand up comic, he or she will claim that in order to direct you must be a musician and a stand-up comic. They will have stories of undeserving hacks who got hired because a friend owed them a favor, which in turn helps justify the narrative that – as goes the pitch for some workshops – “You don’t need talent to be a director.” Or the most basic instruction, “Are you covered?” which just means that if you record a scene from every angle top to bottom any edit can be made and your lack of talent will not be an obstacle. If someone says that belief in the motivated camera decision and the motivated frame makes you a sucker, they in tern are selling something.
That example is meant to show how people will build traps to support whatever gives them an advantage. Proving that someone’s argument is false or flawed will not get a thankful response. An instructor may say the success of a film is all about the pitch and then give the example of Jaws – a shark torments a beach community – and I’m in!! Except that the same premise and title was used with less success following that film because the original director was a genius. The direction is a star of Jaws as much as any other element. Today some studios and filmmakers are believing the Twitter activist spin so strongly that it is as if they believe the star ingredient of a new movie is its political posturing and gender flipping. A star of Terminator: Dark Fate remarked, “There is no trace of the male gaze in this movie.” This may have been reassuring to someone but it translates as, “throw a potato sack over any attractive woman, lest she be photogenic.”

When colleges began initiating their own rules regarding safe spaces, it seemed laughable but it is also a method of shutting down the competing voice. When they started saying enthusiastic consent is necessary and not merely the legal requirement of simple consent for sex to not be deemed rape, this could have been shrugged off as a minor distinction. There would be little point in debating it. Some argue that it is another step toward matriarchy in led by the woman’s libido and not a man’s, which would be bad news for those of us who are not the “bad boy” or giant male specimens. But in any case, these are issues between individuals in relationships and the broad strokes are a distraction. It is not worth taking the bait. Colleges will constantly try to cover themselves from lawsuits. Nonsense is to be expected. But it is worth just being aware that some of the issues are not abstractions but threats to your survival.

The challenge therefore isn’t to ingratiate ourselves to people who don’t share our priorities but to recognize that people who start each day googling their trigger words to see what blogs will educate them are frequently engaged in a pathology and strategy about how to gain advantage, and those of us who are not competitive and merely want to communicate and be understood can be steam-rolled. Better to discover who likes what you like and has the same priorities and compatible goals. No point in a tug of war where you have left a page full of argument fragments with your name on it for people to spam. There is that Polonius advice, “Give everyone your ear but few your voice.” Honour what you have to say, or “your truth” if you can stand calling it that. But make sure the seed falls on good soil and not rocks.