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.

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.

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.

What Am I Doing Wrong ?

I’m being distracted from doing my own work. Lectures on Transcendental Meditation talk about the busy ocean surface and the quiet stillness of the depths beneath.  When we spend any amount of time on social media or the internet in general it is the surface, choosing our words carefully but knowing that inevitably someone will challenge, reduce, misinterpret or misrepresent what you have said.  You can end up communicating more with people you dislike than supporting people you love. You can debate whether or not a movie studio deserves your admission fee and whether you should boycott Star Wars because JJ decided that the Death Star you saw incinerated into a cloud of tiny cinders has chunks that landed intact on Endor without bursting into flame entering the atmosphere and that the Emperor you saw dropped into a shaft and explode is still alive.  Even in these blogs, I have mentioned that too much.

You can enjoy the new trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife which seems like a respectful follow-through on the 1984 and 1989 films, perhaps the 2009 video game that involved the same cast.  Or you can be further distracted by dimwits who are now taking their turn at sour grapes upon realization that the 2016 Paul Feig iteration – a remake that pretended the events of the Eighties had not taken place – is wiped from canon with the corrective measure of the new Jason Reitman film. It is not worth engaging. There are some witty youtubers riding the coat tails of anything that has a marketing campaign, anything trending on Twitter. They have to because that is their full time job, uploading something with a headline that might get clicks.  It doesn’t mean that any of us need to know the judgement or expectations of these pundits.  A significant number will lure me in to listen about Hollywood trying to coax non fans of various IPs traditionally appealing to males by flipping them or using them as a vessel to carry an eye-roll ostensibly feminist message expecting to alienate the original built in fan base or shame them into accepting the change “because it is good for society.” I don’t think as a movie buff since about 1980 I have ever paid to see a movie for the good of society.

I once belonged to a screenwriting and script reading circle in which I was eventually asked to leave because I had not taken the same course as the rest of the group.  I had sat in to help read as a guest and they liked my reading and input; I had shot a film in the home of one of the members. It was years later before I learned that the reason someone in the group spoke against me was that I had written something that was not P.C. or was not advancing a progressive agenda.  This is both horrifying and comforting.  At least it wasn’t necessarily the work itself.  But I don’t know – especially in Canada which tends to lean to more ostensibly progressive and insular in terms of the left – whether I will get the traction required to beat the system and get my stuff out there.  Self marketing is the worst part of any creative life.  I have a book to publish, but have not yet reached out. I have several screenplays, but I don’t know for the life of me why anyone would invest money in them.  Even a good film is a huge risk. And am I willing to play ball, to change the nature and intention of a work to appease the taste or politics of an investor or collaborator?  Not really.  And that may well be a character flaw on my part.  It may also be the saving grace that allows me to continue seeking out and properly vetting collaborators who want to make the same movie or create the same final result or enjoy the same challenging process.  I don’t thrive on chaos. I don’t even trust what people call chemistry. I’d rather go from unknown to known.

I don’t have the power to say:  The next Star Wars movie will be Mace Windu starring Samuel L. Jackson. He has been consulting The Whills about an incident where someone has violated the World Between Worlds and messed with time portholes to throw off the balance of the universe and the birth or death of the wrong players.  Master Windu accepts their challenge to enter the World Between Worlds and set events back to to the way they play out in the (now non-canon “Legends”) books.  Mara Jade properly is allowed to meet Luke Skywalker as in Heir to the Empire.  Leia ends up having twins with Han, so she is already pregnant at a time when she might have conceived Ben Solo. When Windu is done setting time into proper motion again and undoing the damage, he destroys the tample that houses the World Between Worlds so nobody can infiltrate it with mischief again.

That would be my pitch to set Star Wars right. It would infuriate Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm Story Group that she hired.  But if I had the power, I would find a way to politely fire them anyway.

I don’t know what the result will be of changes to the James Bond world in its upcoming new film No Time to Die.  A woman taking the 007 designation may or may not work. I would have been happier to see what Danny Boyle would have done as a traditional Bond film.  You don’t pick up a sleeping baby.  Sometimes people get restless with formula. Mork and Mindy season one is great, and naturally fish out of water. Dexter season one has him seeming far more alien than following seasons.  Time is bound to soften a premise or eliminate the strangeness that defines it or even compromise the reality around it.  Some ideas can’t be sustained for a long haul.  That is a drawback of the Daniel Craig iteration of Bond using a continuing story and stretching to create connective narrative tissue. It will then feel the pressure of time.  When Bonds were barely connected (maybe having Richard Keil as the hit man “Jaws” in two movies), the episodic approach kept the character eternal.  An actor would age out and someone new could come in.  Dame Judy Dench as M was actually a smart move that in no way compromised the series.  She was able to bring a scolding tone to Bond without seeming like a reach.  Previous men as M were taken for granted and could not make much impression.  Desmond Llewellyn as Q, and eventually John Cleese were able to express irritation with Bond over the likelihood that he will destroy whatever gadget they give him. After this iteration of Bond, if there is a reset it should be to explore whatever Danny Boyle had in mind.

I would have accepted a Naiomi Harris Eve Moneypenny standalone film or a Jeffrey Wright Felix Lieter standalone.  Some wouldn’t but they could have been done for Netflix. It would be a leap to spend $200 million on a movie about the new actress playing an agent that takes over the number 007.  That would be a bridge too far. The brand is James Bond 007, not ________007. And if sexism is part of the appeal, frankly that should not be a concern.  Bond is a fast living character and may attract men who read Maxim or “bros” as you want to call them.  Even “assholes” should be allowed to enjoy your movie.  They shouldn’t have to pass the Phil Donahue Character test. And much of life’s humor is in the theme that the best laid plans of mice and men may not work out.

As I stare down the barrel of my own writing work, I admit I am spooked by “the moment we are in,” as Stephen Colbert once repeatedly put it to each guest.  Do I have to wait until the bubble of progressiveness bursts?  Is there a road back? Do I just sit back and enjoy my DVDs of movies from the Eighties?  There are still three major feature projects immediately on my plate.  One is in progress but being re-configured, another was cancelled but is still on the back-burner.  These, arguably the most important goals of my life, get sidelined from time to time either out of work or those ever-present surface distractions of the turbulent ocean.  Time to, as they say in Fight Club, turn down the volume on all of that.  When I am in process, and scrutinizing something in a scene or letting the urgency of a moment push it into shape I am feeling on track and engaged in something meaningful.  I am also in my comfort zone.  I know that actually making a movie is outside of that comfort zone, because of time pressures and coping with what might go wrong.  So before the crunch I have to stick to my principles and make sure that I am defining the project and not let it be set off balance by the interjection of inorganic input.  Engaging people can be the real challenge, because the project makes it conditional. We have to be up to compatible mischief.

Right now it is about dealing with what is in front of me, the things I can control, the progression of ideas and the shaping of a coherent premise and narrative people can grasp and dialogue that might amuse. I feel like I should roll back the clock 30 years. Don’t say “someday” to yourself.  Time is of such value. I love watching movies and TV series and tell myself this is all productive but even that needs to be a reward for making progress in my work. I might be doing a music video in coming months, and might help someone tidy up a long gestating script.  But these things will have my focus when they need it and I can’t be in suspended animation waiting for a shoot. If I had money tomorrow I likely would easily prep my suspended clown movie. That is in the best shape. And the novelization would be published with some of that money.  But even basic housekeeping has to be tended to.  I have old scripts and other writing on floppy discs (hard ones from late Nineties and early 2000’s). Have to extract files from Microsoft and Mac discs in a world where those slots for floppies just aren’t available so much. I have to also convert more VHS material to DVD or data with a new VHS to DVD machine. I have to sit through some poorly labeled tapes and get some of that done.  All big things are made up of little mundane things.

It could also be argued that I should get my personal life in order or all of my writing is about – one way or another – having no life.  But I’m prepared to accept that.  I mean I have no interest in just getting by.  There is that scary part of the brain that could dispassionately step off the planet earth at any moment unless there is a concrete follow-through on all the work I’ve done to this point.  So even if I have set some things aside from time to time I have not given up.  I am however prone to being seduced by the killer of time and the sapper of energy and vitality, wrong viewing, wrong reading, wrong food, wrong exercise.  I can be supportive of other artists, but even that has narrowed somewhat thanks to ideological divides and potential pissing contests that get in the way of the intricate goals on the horizon and not revising what is in the mind’s eye as excellent and worth working toward.

Template Manifesto

Aspects of this might have been mentioned in other posts, but it is something I turn over in my head excessively, like a crazy person, either for past meetings that could have been more efficient or future projects.  Of course, each creative person will approach a project in whatever way allows them to function and thrive and finally be satisfied somewhat and feel ownership for the results.  The following is just what seems to work for me, but feel free to copy and use or revise to suit yourself:

FOUNDATION PRINCIPLE OF PROJECTS:

It is better to have no movie than to have the wrong movie. Whether the story was broken with a group or written by an individual, once it is read and the tires are kicked in terms of story continuity and it suits the taste of the team leader or director, this is where the project is defined. The more general a goal, the easier it is to attract collaborators. The more specific it becomes, usually that weeds people out so that only those most appropriate for it are involved. So this is all about making sure nobody feels misled and needless upset on location under a time crunch is reduced.  No sense fixing something that is not broken. There is what John Cleese calls open system and closed system of working, the latter being the point where choices have been made and you get on with it.

Every investor, crew member, and actor – anyone involved – has to have one thing in common: They all must be willing to make the same movie as the director.  If the director has to – as part of a written agreement with an investor – initial every page of the screenplay to indicate he or she will indeed make the movie as described, that is a workable condition.  To initial the ether for the sake of promising improvisation would not be possible.

To be involved has to be an INFORMED choice, which requires reading the script so that all concerned know about anything controversial in the planned content.  Though my own politics may be left of the middle, I show no respect for the extreme right nor the extreme left.  Reading 100 pages of screenplay may be work, but nothing compared to the efforts of making a movie. Anyone interested is welcome to look at storyboard sketches also.   Exceptions to the rule might be background performers who only have t know the parameters of the event where they are needed to gather and none should be admitted (even friends who just want to get a message to someone and go) without signing in as part of the waiver / release for their image; It is too easy for someone to decide to hang around, be lost in the shuffle, and end up on screen without release which could compromise the production.  If you can reconcile yourself to the material, any rude jokes for example, triggering content, ideology or lack thereof, that is when to move forward and embrace the experience.

Conversely, should somebody not like the screenplay, my writing, my storyboarding approach to directing and have no confidence in the work or myself, then I would not have a leg to stand on with such a person who why would I walk into the burning house of working with him/her? So this brings us back to the primary principle of wanting to or being willing to make the same movie the director wants to make.

*** END OF MANIFESTO ***

Some people thrive on chaos.  That is NOT what this project will be about, nor will it be a repository for random shtick.  The fiscally responsible Roger Corman approach for low budget is to lock the script and storyboard everything so that the crew can anticipate in advance of a shoot what equipment is needed to achieve the shots and how much time is needed so that we can make the day.

Should the bulk of casting or crewing come from the same person, it is especially vital that this individual meet the above criteria and want to make the same movie. Otherwise the project can deteriorate into a popularity contest or an unstable democracy.  The one nod to democracy should be the informed choice made at the outset whether or not to participate. “You have to follow your own gut.  No hard feelings if you don’t want to be part of this.”

That is a sincere response to those who opt out or attempt to coerce a script change or omission to suit his or her personal peccadillo. I consider it a polite lie, but have said it myself. Many people I know lean so far to the left they would ban and erase every performance of “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.”  So there would be a natural clash with me.

My policy is this:  John Cleese, a co-founder of Monty Python, perhaps put it best quoting his friend and a co-author Robin Snynner of Life and How to Survive It:

“If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behaviors.”

This applies to trying to block or erase anything that may set off anxiety for those who have survived trauma. Good intentions or not.  Survivors have suffered loss of control, so they may act out in one form or another by exerting whatever control over others – if only on social media or campaigning to have something banned, censored or pulled from the airwaves or public spaces. For this reason, the sensibility of outrage culture is suspect and needs to be resisted.  This is a big part of the joy and satisfaction of my own writing, which may not apply if you are not burdened by my style or quirks.  The story and plot of a movie just a container for specific lines or shots I am passionate about putting into the world. I don’t especially embrace the “kill your darlings” credo because so much of my writing is JUST little darlings.

If they are delivered “fast and flat” as Barry Sonnenfeld like his comedy dialogue, that is usually best for anything I write.  Like a pebble skimming the surface of the water. When people read, they may come to a dead stop after a risky quip, but the movie doesn’t. If a table reading is organized it has to be without anyone checking their phone for texts and everyone engaged and energized so it isn’t just an intellectual recitation of content but we are selling ourselves on the potential fun tone (or whatever tone you prefer). A cold read may be a challenge some actors like, but it doesn’t serve to make the table read engaging.  You want to catch any words tough to pronounce or any speed bumps. But even saying that, coordinating a table read can be exhausting. But at least it can get across a version of the proposed content so that anyone attending or hearing a recording of the audio at least can get an idea of the music of the pacing in various runs of dialogue and what it really is they are making an informed choice to join.

 

 

Grinding Your Gears

In the past, each completed project gave me a morale boost to fuel the next.  If something goes off track or I’ve been given (and naively accepted) a false resource that collapses, it can be difficult to just transfer energy to something else.  I think people talking to themselves may be re-living conversations where they could have anticipated the worst and come away with dignity and saved some time.  I can grind my psychological gears in a quiet moment wasting energy on a “would-could-shoulda.”  Things may have gone the same way ultimately sooner or later.  Maybe sooner if you put a fine point on it.

If it feels like there is some Faustian embargo in the air, you might be making the wrong deal.  If someone wants to be the creative power behind the throne, they can get their own throne.  And as I’ve said before, if someone doesn’t have faith in you as a director or doesn’t like the script, you’ve got no leg to stand on with that person and why walk into that burning house?  If on the other hand they want to impose something on the film – random shtick, improvisation, ideology – it will negate or compromise your sense of authorship.  It is one thing to improve a script, kicking the tires, questioning logic or continuity. These are things the writer can answer and figure out without losing the sense of authentic authorship.  A full range of talents have clung to a credit even if it meant arbitration and even if it meant that everybody knew the best lines came from someone else.  But if what motivates you is the work itself and seeing your own ideas vindicated (or giving them every chance to be vindicated), it is worth remembering that Jim Jarmush claims that he writes a screenplay in longhand, one draft, and gives it to a typist and then just makes his movie. I suspect there are many critical darlings who do that and if something seems unclear in the movie it is taken as artistic ambiguity.  It is not unlikely that a first draft and final draft will have the same percentage of people who like or dislike the resulting movie.  Se7en famously had many drafts generated in the development phase, only to have its original shocking draft by Andrew Kevin Walker find its way to David Fincher’s attention so he could insist on reverting to that. The Verdict was adapted by David Mamet and then compromised by others until director Sidney Lumet insisted on discarding the development and reverting to Mamet.  Those seem like no-brainer choices, but it took a good cook insisted that not everybody had to piss in the soup.  Especially if you are a writer-director, you are gong to take the heat for a mediocre movie so you may as well be gambling on your own taste and your own work rather than someone else.

Discussion of movies from a fan perspective can generate some of the worst ideas for how it “could have been better.” One guy re-edited The Last Jedi just to make sure that in his version Admiral Ackbar is still alive. There are many things wrong with that movie, and that character should have had an on-screen death and one with nobility (maybe securing an oxygen mask onto Princess Leia before floating off dead in the vacuum of space). But even with a Lucasfilm Story Group and producers looking at the script, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they went with Rian Johnson’s whims and took their chances.  Each writer has to take his or her own chances.  You might even be satisfied just writing character descriptions and an outline of scenes and letting others expand on that. But however long the process, you arrive at a point where you say THIS is the script I want to translate into storyboard drawings and finally stage for the camera.  Not a hundred other variations which you have considered and discarded.

The internet has accelerated the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” and also the consequences of answering with honesty.   People can insist on being called something they are not. It may be personally vital to know that a writer-director credit reflects your actual writing and your direction. I would feel false if I did not plan my own shots and the progression of images. That is where my satisfaction comes from.  Simply gathering people together to shoot something is not in itself cathartic. It is kind of a necessary evil.  Most of the anxiety will come from just how the house of cards will fall. Some people thrive on chaos, but I don’t.  I wouldn’t invest in chaos.

There are people who push to destroy the auteur theory of direction, where “A film by” credits are seen as giving too much importance to the role of director. I don’t really come down on either side of those false binary options.  The designation of director – let alone writer – can be given to anyone from a fraud who shows up and takes credit for everyone else to someone coming from a Hitchcock perspective where film grammar and psychology motivate the shot choices and the audience is being directed by the person they have been told is doing so.  None of us has to be a genius or feel like one to achieve the latter description.  It might help to be obsessed with finding the best shot for a moment or an interesting and appropriate way to transition between scenes. I’ve done short films that people hated and written screenplays that some people did not get, but I honored my impulses in any case and that is a big part of it.

So many processes appear to be about stripping the finger prints from a work. The issue celebrated might be the subject matter or a sociopolitical bent and not the WAY something was written or the WAY it was directed.  Style may be stripped away, and for me style is a big part of what makes me love cinema.

Does this blog make me look fat?

 

 

 

 

Halloween Season Must Sees

They don’t all take place at Halloween time, or October, and they are not all horror. I am surprised that no Hitchcock films made the list.  Maybe Frenzy might have made it, but Psycho felt obligatory. The intention is to get people watching these films that enrich the viewing of anything that follows. The Babadook by Jennifer Kent didn’t make the list but it is very well done. Maybe that should be adjusted.

https://www.imdb.com/list/ls097576907/

 

Things to Do

What I call finding confidence, facing fear of rejection and risking my ego someone else today might call “straight white male entitlement.”  Each person has one degree or another of the still, quiet voice in the back of the mind urging on a nugget of an idea or something larger, a poem, a script, a joke, a short film, a longer story.  Ignoring it until it goes away or becomes just a thought or a memory of a vague dream just might be acceptable for some people.  If it won’t go away or you feel it nagging and wanting to live outside of your head, as custodian of that impulse or plan or whimsy it will be a challenge to wade through the noise and clutter of today’s outrage culture and the more amusing distractions of each day to keep an eye on that goal and keep on attempting the messy version of it or the interim version as it becomes more and more what you mean. It is the transition between the euphoric spark of an idea, which is perfect, and the execution of it which involves one or more stages of imperfection.

Right now I have some boring goals that might allow me to better get a handle on the work I have to do, even the work I have enjoyed and that is a part of me.  I have to 1. Lose weight, so that I can 2. reduce the medication I take, so that I can 3. better focus and hold a thought and think several stages down the line to complete creative works that had years before been my compulsion.  That’s a disclosure nobody needs to know, but maybe one with which others have to grapple.  I have to tie a lot of ideas together.  I have a considerable in-box of projects that have to be wound up and resolved into something entertaining to others.  But I also have to push past a sense of drifting and excessive relaxation.  It is deceptive.  And when I do drag my middle-aged butt to the gym early enough to avoid the crowd and get the right stationary bike that functions properly and then get into the pool while I can claim a lain for myself and feel like I have kick started my day in a responsible way maybe I’ll avoid foods that bog me down and make me sleepy and kill half my productive hours.

A blog or a comment on social media takes less energy, so it can be a lot of superficial remarks and half-baked thoughts that add up to nothing but make me feel as if I have done my duty as a citizen of the internet in correcting someone else’s information about whatever controversy or director or movie or politician.  And then I will still be left looking at that in-box of partially complete and existentially vital work to be done.