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“Montage is conflict.”
Sergei Eisenstein

It’s not always easy to comprehend a Russian book of essays more than 50 years old and translated into English (and reduced to a blog post), but that doesn’t mean we should totally shy away from something more than a traditional sound bite. So here’s some meat to chew on today from someone that Entertainment Weekly listed as the #29 greatest director of all time (between Preston Sturges and Fritz Lang).

“These are the ‘cinematographic’ conflicts within the frame:
Conflict of scales.
Conflict of volumes.
Conflict of masses.
(Volumes filled with various intensities of light)
Conflicts of depths.
And following conflicts, requiring only one further impulse of intensification before flying into antagonistic pairs of pieces:

Close shots and long shots.
Pieces of graphically varied directions. Pieces resolved in volume, with pieces resolved in area.
Pieces resolved in volume, with pieces of lightness.
And, lastly, there are such unexpected conflicts as:
Conflicts between an object and its dimesnsion—and conflicts between an event and its duration.
These may sound strange , but both are familiar to us. The first is accomplished by an optically distorted lens, and the second by stop-motion or slow-motion.”

Writer/Director/Editor Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin)
Film Form

Here’s a classic example of visual conflict from the opening of The Graduate (1967): 

P.S. Eisenstein worked as an engineer for the Red Army before becoming a filmmaker (which explains the technical & theoretical angle his thoughts come from. And according to IMDB, he once considered Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the single greatest film ever made.  So watch that film again and see how visual conflict is handled. (Fittingly, here’s a Russian translation of the poisoned apple scene from Snow White.)

Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“I was in great danger of being fired.”
Francis Ford Coppola (reflecting on the third week of shooting The Godfather)

One of the best things I learned in film school was from a professor who said in a nice Brooklyn accent, “Everybody on the set believes they can direct the picture better than you.” That’s true of student films, and it was no different for Francis Ford Coppola when he was directing The Godfather.

He overheard in a bathroom crews members saying things like, “Ah, what do you think of this director? Boy, he doesn’t know anything.” The studios didn’t like Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. They preferred Robert Redford to Al Pacino as Michael. They didn’t like the lighting of the DP Gordon Willis. By the third week of shooting he thought he was going to be fired. So, in Mafia-like fashion, he fired four key crew members that he thought were “traitors” and conspiring against him, which forced the studio to keep him on the picture.

“I was very unhappy during (the shooting of) The Godfather, I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad— and I didn’t have a hell of a lot of confidence in myself—I was only about 30 years old or so. And I was just hanging on by my wits. You know I had no indication that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film, much less a film that was to become a classic. So I always feel for young people working—remember that those times when you feel that your ideas aren’t good— or people are putting down your ideas, or you’re getting fired, that those are the same ideas that you’re going to be celebrated for 30 years later. So you almost have to have courage.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather DVD Commentary

It would probably be good to edit the words “almost have to have” from that last line and replace it with the word “must.” As in, “So you must have courage.”

The Godfather won three Academy Awards—Best Picture, Marlon Brando as Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Mario Puzo and Coppola won for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards and has been named by Entertainment Weekly and Empire Magazine as the greatest movie ever made.

Scott W. Smith

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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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The 2008  Sundance Film Festival ended Sunday with Josh Tickell’s Fields of Fuel winning The Audience Award: Documentary.  I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know if Tickell shot or wrote any of the film in Iowa, but anybody who drives a Veggie Van around the country has to have an Iowa connection. The vehicle looks like it should be a permanent fixture at the Iowa State Fair.

Even the title itself, Fields of Fuel, appears to be a play on the quintessential Iowa film Fields of Dreams. On Tickell’s personal website he does offer a link to Biodiesel Education at Iowa State University in Ames.

I drove three hours across Iowa Monday (and past at least one ethanol plant)  for a week of video production in Sioux City. Though the cornfields are barren this time of year, you just sense those farmers are ready to grow some ethanol and make some money… and, of course, bring down gas prices and lower our dependency on terrorist filled countries for oil.

The Field of Fuel website (www.fieldsoffuel.com) does list the co-editor of the documentary as Sarah Rose who graduated with honors from the University of Iowa. She was in the same media studies program that also produced recent Oscar-nominated screenwriter Diablo Cody. Last person to head to Iowa City please turn out the lights.

Congrats to Tickell, Rose and the entire Fields of Fuel production team on their award. I look forward to seeing the film.

Another film at Sundance that received good buzz this year and definitely has an Iowa connection is the film Sugar directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. It’s a story of a baseball player from a small town in the Dominican Republic who comes to the United States to play baseball and among other places ends up playing ball in a small town in Iowa.

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, “There hasn’t been a sports movie this original in a while, as Sugar journeys to the strange land of Iowa, where he joins a single-A team and moves in with a genial farm family.”

The movie is also reported to have a Field of Dreams dream as the lead character named Sugar is motivated to play baseball in Iowa after seeing the movie staring Kevin Costner. That reminds me of a great quote by Bill Romanowski of Calvin College who said that “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” A great example of this is the movie Top Gun which was inspired by a magazine article about a real life, small group of pilots in training. When the film was released the Navy had record number of young men joining to become jet pilots.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Sometimes the results are positive and sometimes they are negative. But make no mistake, movies make a powerful impact on our lives and culture.

The filmmakers of Sugar shot much of the film in Davenport, Iowa and the surrounding Quad Cities and were one of the first to take advantage of recent tax incentives for filmmakers who spend over $100,000 in the state.

Earlier this month Iowa Governor Chet Culver in speaking about Iowa’s commitment to helping filmmakers said, “Iowa has a lot to offer the film industry and, quite frankly, we want more movies filmed in our state. As a television or motion picture producer with the greatest of expectations, in Iowa, you can find it all. The new film tax credit and training award send a clear signal to Hollywood: Iowa is camera-ready and open for business.”

To learn about the The Iowa Film Office visit www.traveliowa.com/film.

One a closing note on the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with a production friend from Iowa, Jon Van Allen, yesterday and he was brave enough to drive his grip truck into Park City a couple days ago. He was on his way to California for a shoot and just couldn’t pass the opportunity to make a slight detour off I-80 to catch part of the festival.

He said it was cold and snowing with some famous people walking around. That sounds just like Iowa – except for the famous people walking around.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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