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New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

“The future of cinema lies in the power of the pixel. The injection of fresh ideas and methodologies will only serve to mix up the metaphorical gene pool and empower a new generation of filmmakers.
                                                                                           Roger Corman

“The comeback of documentaries is strictly linked to the arrival of digital technology. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The whole the notion of distribution will be changed in the next decade.”
                                                                                          Wim Wenders

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.”
                                                                                           Gary Winick

“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
                                                                                           Francis Ford Coppola 

 

Francis Ford Coppola is a prophet. As he gets older he even starts to look like a Moses-like figure. (Well, at least Charlton Heston-like.)  He’s every screenwriters friend and should be an inspiration to you.

He’s made great films (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), he’s made money and lost money, he’s won five Oscars, he even has a daughter who’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s been a visionary, an artist, “a idea machine,” he own a resort in Belize and a home in Buenos Aires, and he makes a good bottle of wine there in Northern California.

A few months ago I was doing a shoot in the San Francisco Bay area and had an opportunity to make a quick stop in Napa Valley. I had not been there in over a decade and one of the things that struck me was it reminded me of Iowa. Then I realized why, it’s farm land with many Victorian homes scattered around.

Granted those homes in California are five times more expensive than the ones in Iowa. But the area has a similar feel.  In fact if you head west on Interstate 80 from Iowa after a couple days you will end up in California which is essentially what Midwest people did years ago on the first transcontinetal highway looking for new opportunities (and before that looking for gold). Which is why the street names in Napa include, Iowa St., Illinois St., Omaha Ct. and Kansas Ave.

I won’t get into Coppola being born in Michigan because there’s too much room to cover already. Toward the end of part 1 of this post I mentioned Coppola using video on The Outsiders back in 1982.  But before that film he also used video according to ASC cinematographer Russ Alsobrook:

“In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found its way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video tapes with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system.”

Coppola and those working with him 25 years ago showed where the technology was heading and helped pave the way. Earlier this year his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth was released. It was shot on with a high end HD video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro. With five Oscars behind him I’m pulling for Coppola himself to do some of his best work ever in this new cinema.

I’m pulling for you too which is why this is a monster length post, even after being broken up into two parts. It’s important for you to grasp where all the technology is heading. 

What happened between Coppola’s Airstream video center in 1982 and today that makes it an exciting time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker?

Let’s start with 1997. That was the year that digital video arrived on the scene with the Sony VX1000. It was a leap in image quality, portability, and cost and independent filmmakers jumped on board. Lars von Trier’s was one of the first to shoot a feature with the Sony VX1000. He did the camera work as well as direct The Idiots, which was in competition at Cannes in 1998.

In 2000 Van Trier released Dancer in the Dark which was also shot on video, but in one scene he used 100 DV cameras.  Let it be stated that the critics have be far apart on judging his films. Rodger Ebert wrote, “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Another reviewer called it “A 2 ½ hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level.” (Derek Elly, Variety) But another reviewer said of the same film, “An exhilarating and original work of cinema. A triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity. Astonishing!” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

Dancer in the Dark went on to win the top award at the Cannes film festival.

In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode.

Another film first happened in 2002 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark that was shot digitally in one take.  Impossible to do with film due to limitations of film loads. (Though Hitchcock did his best to make Rope look like one take.) Russian Ark was shot not with a DV camera but a Sony HD camera. That same year Academy –award winning director Steven Soderbergh shot a DV feature Full Frontal.

Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002) that covered his return to stand-up comedy after his successful run on the TV hit Seinfeld. It was made with a small crew, is raw in production values, but offers a unique behind the scene look at the work of a comedian.

In 1999 a company called InDigEnt was formed by director/producer Gary Winick, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, and Caroline Kaplan. 

“I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.”
                                                                                                   Gary Winick

Winick directed Tadpole, shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, and won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

InDigEnt also made my personal favorite DV feature Pieces of April in 2003. It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar.  It written and directed by Peter Hedges (who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?)

In an Interview with Indie Wire Winick told Matthew Ross:

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”

Ross: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.

Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform…Digital cameras can be portable enough that if you suddenly come up with a new approach, you can just back up and redo your scene….Charlie Chaplin used to make films that way… These days, studios just aren’t going to give directors permission to play around that way in 35mm — on DV, you can.

And in 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

That same year at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards.

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station. And it’s going to get wilder.  I really don’t think most audiences watching the above films or other DV features such as Trainspotting, Murderball, The Buena Vista Social Club, Inland Empire, and Grizzly Man really care what the film was shot on. They want to be entertained, engaged and get a glimpse into the world they live in. Dare I say films with meaning?

All of this means there are going to be more opportunities for films made and distributed outside the Hollywood system.  People have been dreaming about this time since at least 1955 when Daily Variety’s headline read “Film is Dead” with the invention of the first Ampex video tape recording machine. That bold declaration, and those like it, have caused much laughter. Hollywood is slow to change.

It’s always fun to look back at past predictions and read things like, “The radio will never replace TV because people have to stop and sit down to watch TV” and that Manhattan would never have more than 1 million people living there because there wouldn’t be enough room for all the horses.” 

I remember when a trailer for Silkwood came out in ’83 and Cher’s name appeared on screen. People in the theater laughed. Apparently they missed her excellent film acting debut performance in Robert Altman’s Welcome Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that came out in 1982.

To the people laughing, Cher was only known as part of the kitchy TV program The Sonny and Cher Show that ran from 1976-1977. She had had a few hit songs, but no one (except Altman perhaps) took her as a serious actress. They weren’t laughing after they saw her performance in Silkwood or the next year for her roll in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, or her academy-award winning performance in Moonstruck.

But that’s the same laughter that I heard when my boyhood friends learned the motorcycle company Honda was going to make cars. It’s the same laughter that Ted Turner heard when he said he was going to start a 24 Hour News channel. When told by a reporter that he lost 10 million dollars in his first year of operation, in true maverick spirit he said, “And I plan on losing 10 million dollars every year until this works.”

No one’s laughing at CNN now and behind Tunrer’s wake are many channels dedicated to sports, weather, history, pets and home improvement. (Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dreams touches on the spirit of the entrepreneur.) The entrepreneur and the artist often share a stubborn vision of what is possible.

Artists have always taken the tools at hand and created art; Be it an old Polaroid camera or a cheap Russian made Holga camera. For years filmmakers have been using a plastic video camera designed by Fisher-Price in the 1970’s for children called PixelVision. It originally shot onto cassettes but now is commonly adapted for DV use and there are now PixelVision film festivals as well. 

Now that iTunes is selling short films from the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award Nominated films it allows a revenue stream never seen before for short filmmakers. With a few clicks on your computer you can be watching The Last Farm shot in Iceland.

Most books on screenwriting are geared toward the traditional Hollywood feature film route and I’m indebted to those books for there I learned classic storytelling structure, but there are many alternative routes for you these days due to the increased bandwidth of the Internet.

Keep in mind that You Tube was just launched in 2005. And already it’s had success (Lonely Girl 15 and We Need Girlfriends) launching careers. The later now being developed by Sex in the City creator Darren Star, who is working on a CBS pilot with the original creators who made the videos in off hours from their day jobs.

And don’t forget the potential for screenwriting for videos games that have become more and more story orientated. Video game sales a couple years ago surpassed movie revenue. And every year more and more businesses will be using video on the Internet to tell their stories.

The digital genie is way out of the bottle. It may be digital but someone still has to write the screenplays. On the high end there will continue to be films shot digitally like Sin City and 300 that were shot on blue screens on sound stages, and this years’ $30 million Cloverfield which was shot mostly with the Panasonic HVX 200 digital camera that sells new for under $6,000. shooting onto digital P2 cards.

There will continually be upgrades to smaller high def DV cameras and films made from them, and there are films now being made being shot directly to hard drives and edited as they’re being shot, and even those older cameras like the Sony VX1000 will filter down to someone who decides its time to make a little film.

And let’s not forget those cell phone cameras I wrote about in New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1).

This is filmmaking and screenwriting in the 21 century;  A screen is any screen available. Embrace it. That’s new cinema screenwriting.

So pick up a bottle of Coppola wine today a give a toast to Mr. Francis Ford Coppola, prophet, pioneer, and godfather of new cinema.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80’s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90’s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40’s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80’s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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