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Archive for September, 2015

“The perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie.”
David Mamet
On Film Directing 

“One of my notions [in making Mad Max] was that if I make the action sequences as a silent movie, and it reads as a silent movie, then it can only get better with sound.”
Mad Max director/co-writer George Miller 

Today is the last day of a month of posts centered around filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (with help from a few of his director friends and acquaintances). And we end with the bang looking at the journey of George Miller, the 70-year-old director of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) who not only started working with an unusual career for a film director (medical doctor), but was raised in an unlikely place (Chinchilla, Queensland, Australia—population 5,000 today).

“I grew up in a remote, rural town in the Outback of Australia. And there was no television then. There was a Saturday matinée and there were comics. And I grew up with brothers and we’d play out what we saw in movies and the comics. It was an invisible apprenticeship to make movies. I’d read American Cinematographer magazines and we’d scrutinize them about, and go, ‘Oh, that’s how they did the car rigging,’ and anything Hitchcock said became a little dictum. I learned where I think we should all learn— in the cinema. I just consumed everything…The big influence on me was Buster Keaton because cinema—the silent era—they were able to do things you could see nowhere else. It wasn’t a recording device, it was actually creating a language. And I suddenly thought, wow, this is amazing.”
Producer/writer/director George Miller
The Director’s Chair with Robert Rodriguez interview
(On the El Rey Network and available on iTunes)

While in medical school he entered a one-minute silent film contest with his brother which led to winning the competition and both attending a filmmaking workshop. Within ten years he made his debut feature film Max Max starring Mel Gibson.

Two remarkable things about that low-budget feature is its strong action photography (shot by  director of photography Dean Semler and the lack of dialogue by Gibson. (Under 20 lines of dialogue in the entire film for the lead role.)

Miller told Rodriguez of Mad Max, “I definitely had the Hitchcock dictum in my head, he said, ‘I try to make movies where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And as it turned out, the Japanese took to it.” (It’s important to remember that while Alfred Hitchcock is known for his classic films Psycho (1960), North By Northwest (1959), and Vertigo (1958), that he actually began making films in the early 1920s— in the silent era of movies. Read Hitchcock Loved ‘The Hurt Locker’ to see some of his takeaways of visual storytelling.)

As the global market today is more important than ever in the Hollywood film industry, there is much to learn from Hitchcock about visual storytelling. As well as from another director who bridged the silent era into “the talkies” with great effectiveness—John Ford. He also informed Miller’s visual style. In fact, the Mad Max movies have been called “Westerns on wheels.” Watch an action scene from Stagecoach (1939) and compare any of the four Mad Max films.  (By the way, Orson Welles watched Stagecoach 40 times before making Citizen Kane.)

One of my all time favorite movie entrances by a character is in Mad Max 2:The Road Warrior. The surprise intro of Gyro Captian doesn’t quite have the same impact on DVD or You Tube as it did on the big screen when I first saw it, but here’s a clip of it I found online:

Here’s the dynamic character intro of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach.

The movie Ben Hur (1959) also informed Miller’s visual style.

And lastly, to show the diversity of Miller, he directed Lorenzo’s Oil,  and was the one responsible for bringing prolific author Dick King-Smith’s Babe to the movies, and he won his sole Oscar for his 2006 animated feature Happy Feet. When asked the connection between Babe, Happy Feet, and Mad Max. Miller said they all follow the classic hero-myth story.

The real inspiration from Miller is if you’re from a remote, rural town in the Outback or a farm in Iowa, if you’re closer to 7 or 70, or if you just graduated from medical school or grammar school— some interesting things can happen if you take that first step and make a one-minute movie. (Start Small…but Start Somewhere.) For Miller, it eventually led him down Fury Road.

“George and Brendan McCarthy and a couple of other storyboard artists basically wrote [Mad Max: Fury Road] in storyboards.”
Colin Gibson
Production Designer

“There were 3,500 [storyboard] panels around the room and I would say a good 80% of those panels are reflected in the images that you see on the screen today…It was something that was very non-verbal. People obviously speak in the movie, but they speak only when it’s necessary.”
George Miller

P.S. If you can combine classical mythical storytelling with classical silent movie visual storytelling you will be tapping into powerful stuff. Two core books on the mythical journey are Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces  and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

10/8/14 Update:
Here’s a video from the post The Editing of Mad Max: Fury Road by Vashi Nedomansky where he explains how Miller, DP John Seale, and editor Margaret Sixel used a “crosshair framing” or “center framed” technique in Mad Max: Fury Road so the quick cutting action would be visually friendly for audiences.

Also, it appears that later in the day after wrote this post that George Miller did a live stream Q&A with Michael Radford after a screening of Mad Max:Fury Road. So if you haven’t had your George Miller fill yet the Q&A begins at the 5:04 mark:

Related posts:

‘Storytelling Without Dialogue’ (Tip #82)
The Best Film School
Mr. Silent Films
Professor Jerry Lewis (Great Filmmakers)
Harold Loyd vs. Buster Keaton
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46) “One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.”—Hitchcock
Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)—Chaplin

Scott W. Smith

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From Starsky & Hutch to Pacino & De Niro

“I saw Dr. Strangelove in 1963 when I was in Madison, Wis., where I was an undergraduate, and it was a revelation. What struck me is that it was possible to make a film as a real auteur for a mass audience….I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Strangelove but it’s as fresh and exciting today as it was in 1963.”
Michael Mann
2015 NPR interview with Arun Rath

Before Michael Mann directed Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, or Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in Public Enemies, or Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Collateral, or Daniel Day Lewis and Madelene Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans, the 4-time Oscar-nominated producer/writer/director landed his first professional gig writing an episode for the TV show Starsky & Hutch in 1975.

Before that he attend The London Film School, and before that the Chicago-born Mann was an English major in Wisconsin with no real background in the visual arts until one cold winter night…

“I got into film when I took a film history course at the University of Wisconsin. It was freezing, Ten below zero, 10:30 at night and you’re coming down the hill where the buildings were from a screening, and I was so sweep away from what I’d seen. This experience we all have, kind of a wide awake dreaming where you’re transported and part of your brain hopes it doesn’t end too soon.  It just occurred to me the first time, what a minute, you’ve got to do this. I remember exactly where I was on the sidewalk half way down Bascom Hill, looking up—starry night, dry cold— you got to do this, you’re going to make films. An epiphany —that’s what you’re going to do—there’s no question about it….Changed my life. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Michael Mann
Interview with Robert Rodriguez on The Director’s Chair

For what it’s worth my favorite Mann directed film is The Insider (1999) starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars including the screenplay by Eric Roth and Mann (from an article written by Marie Brenner on events from the life of Jeffrey Wigand).

Related posts:
Michael Mann & Subtext
Screenwriting from Wisconsin
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany

Scott W. Smith

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There’s been a big surge this month on my post Screenwriter/Saleman Pete Jones.  Why would there be a surge from a post written over four years ago? I haven’t seen the rebooted Project Greenlight, but I have a felling it’s connected to that since Jones was the person who wrote and directed the first Project Greenlight film, Stolen Summer.

And since I’m on the tail-end of a month long of posts centered around filmmaker Robert Rodriguez it’s a fitting time to talk about his salesman side that’s helped allowed him to build a creative career.  Earlier this year on Tim Ferriss’ podcast he asked Rodriguez this question, “When you hear the word successful who’s the first person that come to mind to you?”

“I always thought my dad was successful because he was an entrepreneur in that he had ten kids and he sold cookware door to door. And the beauty of that was he’d come home and my mom would say, ‘the kids need braces,’ and he’d calculate how much cookware he’d have to sell to pay that—and he’d go sell it. Once he knew he had a target, If he worked a job where if he got the same amount of money no matter what you’d be screwed, but because he could go sell harder—sell somebody on something. It’s really strange, I have five brothers and none of them work for anyone, they’re all entrepreneurs, they all have their own businesses…No one wanted to work for anyone else. Partly because it’s in the DNA, you just don’t want to be under someone else’s thumb….I used to read his little entrepreneur magazines and I’d say, ‘that’s so cool that guy owns video machines in the back of his truck and drove them around the malls.’ I was always encouraged by these entrepreneur stories. People finding another way to go, instead of following everybody else and finding success and happiness. Successful people to me are people who put it all together. Because you can have business success, and job security and be miserable in your personal life, or always having that falling apart or some crisis always happening, and I’m eating it up and loving it and I got that from my father.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez

On a related note, last night I watched on Netflix Milius and enjoyed the doc as it filled in some gaps on the life and work of writer/director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Big Wednesday). Besides being a gifted storyteller, Milius sold his persona of bravado and machismo that was a mixture of Hemingway, John Ford, and John Huston. He came on the scene in the late 60s with Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg. He wrote iconic lines such as “…You’ve got to ask yourself one question—do I feel lucky?” (Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry) and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now). Oliver StoneJoe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino all followed the larger than life Hollywood persona using a torch borrowed from Milius. (And one that Milius took from his childhood heroes John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Chuck Yeager.) More on Milius later when I can do some research.

Scott W. Smith

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“I remember very distinctly [while shooting Forrest Gump] where I’d go through waves of absolute terror. I’d go, ‘This is the worst movie I’ve every made. How is this ever going to work?'”
Director Robert Zemeckis
(The film would go on to be a box office hit and win six Oscar Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role—Tom Hanks, and Best Director for Zemeckis’ work.)

On The Director’s Chair interview filmmaker Robert Rodiguez asked filmmaker Robert Zemeckis this question about Forrest Gump; “When did you know you had something special?”

Robert Zemeckis: “It was that scene at Jenny’s grave. We shot Viet Nam in the morning, and my AD [assistant director] said to me, ‘You know what? The company’s parked here [the production crew], the oak tree’s right there, let’s shoot this after lunch.’ ‘Hey Tom [Hanks], how ’bout we do Jenny’s grave after lunch?’ And Tom, you know, ‘Great.’ And [we did] four takes, and the second one is in the movie. I remember he started doing the scene and I started getting really emotional, and I said cut and I looked behind me and the entire crew was dissolved into tears.”

Rodriguez also asked Zemeckis what his methods were as a director:

“I love to, what I call rehearse, but isn’t really rehearsal. Basically I just have a really long, elaborate table read with my key cast. And I basically act the movie out, and then they start chiming in and we take each character and put them into deep therapy, and that’s sort of my rehearsal process…I think an actor only wants to know one thing from a director and that is ‘What is the character feeling?’ What’s a character feeling in that moment in that scene? Well, he’s young, he’s really sad. Wait, cut. Not that sad. You just have your hand on his throttle… My favorite quote is a Truffaut quote; ‘The definition of a great movie is the perfect blend of truth and spectacle. And spectacle is why you go to the movies. Films have always been the marriage between art and science. It’s a technical art form. All the technology that we use to create a modern movie, to me is all equal. I don’t give any more weight to a visual effect or a close-up which is a visual effect—It’s to serve the story…There’s great power in letting the camera just kinda witness everything. And let the camera be this invisible thing that’s just floating around….I always approach the camera from the story. How can the camera tell the beats of the story and give the audience the information they need when they need to know it.”
Robert Zemeckis

P.S. I only have three more workdays in my self-prescribed month of posts with a Robert Rodriguez emphasis. I haven’t even touch on his book, Rebel Without a Crew, so I think I’ll make my goal.

Related posts:

The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”—Tennessee Williams
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness (Forrest Gump screenwriter)
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth

Scott W. Smith

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“My story is like an American dream story. I grew up on the south side of Chicago [in a] working poor family…I was a freshman in high school when I saw Bonnie and Clyde, and I remember very profoundly there is a scene where Gene Hackman’s character gets shot in the head and he’s in this field and he’s dying. And I remember being overwhelmed with sadness and emotion. And that was the seminal moment where I go I gotta be a movie director. Right around the same time I’m watching Johnny Carson and his guest that night is Jerry Lewis. In the 60s he was like the Spielberg of the movie industry. He had like total autonomy of making his movies. So Johnny says, ‘Hey Jerry, I hear your teaching school at a university,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m teaching at USC Cinema School.’ And I went, there’s cinema school? I thought there’s a place where you can actually learn cinema. I said I gotta go to this place. I got accepted into the USC film school and that was my connection to the movie business. I came out cold turkey. I had no relatives in the movie business, nobody had a union card, and I basically got into the industry through the film school.”
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump)
The Director’s Chair
interview with Robert Rodriguez

In 1975 Zemeckis won at the The Academy’s Student Film Award for his film A Field of Honor. Over the years his filmography includes Back to the Future, Cast Away, Flight, and The Walk (which is released in theaters next week).

Related posts:
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Screenwriting)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Great Filmmakers)
Jerry Lewis (Directing)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Actors)
Filmmaking Quote #13 Robert Zemeckis
Postcard #43 (Savannah)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“The advice is if you want to direct, direct. And even easier—if you want to write, write. Writing is one of the only things that can be done with very little resources.”
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro

“Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.”
Mexican born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro

Robert Rodriguez question to Guillermo del Toro on the The Directors Chair: “I asked Francis Ford Coppola if he had a question for you, and he did, and it’s a great question. He said, ‘Guillermo, with such a fertile imagination what techniques do you use to thin out or to do less and try to focus in on essentials?'”

Guillermo del Toro: “What you need to do is if you can live without it, leave it behind. In designing one of my philosophies I learned from theater design, or opera design, where each set has one statement. For example in Pan’s Labyrinth, the captain’s room is a giant gear with other gears next to it. And the Pale Man is a devil with a chimney….So what part of the set is telling the story? And that’s the part you focus everything. And the rest you need to fall, not away, [but] be secondary to that.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Nobody knew anything. We were just a bunch of kids making a movie.”
John Carpenter on making Halloween when he was 29-years-old
(Though there is some understatement from Carpenter who grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky and eventually graduated from USC film school back when John Ford and Orson Welles were guest speakers.)

The fun part about embracing your limitations is seeing where it will take you. What kind of odd connections can you make that will be fresh and interesting? My post yesterday (The Perfect Ending) had a video clip of David Nutter winning an Emmy for directing, and I noticed on that clip that the actress handing him his Emmy was Jamie Lee Curtis. I wondered if there was a way I could play off that today on my all month-long of writing posts connected to filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

When I think of Curtis I think of her first feature film role in Halloween (1978). And when I think of Halloween I think of John Carpenter who directed the film from a script he wrote with Debra Hill. And it just so happens that Rodriguez interviewed Carpenter on The Director’s Chair.

“Why would a young hispanic filmmaker from San Antonio, Texas ever believe he could be a filmmaker? It was because of your movies. I would see John Carpenter’s The Fog—I’d say who’s this guy? Why is his name above the title. Well look, he’s writing it, he’s directing it, he’s editing it, he’s scoring it, and I’d think this guy is having so much fun. He’s doing it without a studio. He’s doing it independently. He’s doing it with a low-budget. Two hands, boot straps, check, got it— we can go.”
Robert Rodriguez to John Carpenter
The Director’s Chair, Episode 1

I don’t write too much about horror films because it’s not a genre I’m drawn to these days. But like every other teenager in 1978 I remember watching Halloween in a packed theater with people screaming. Great memories. I’ll never forget the one dude being picked up in the movie and being nailed to a door by the bad guy’s knife—ending with the shot of his feet just dangling in the air.

And I remember when I was 12-years-old being enthralled watching the house burn in the House of Usher when they showed the movie one night at the junior high where my mom was a teacher.  Visions of Dracula, Godzillia, Cujo, Norman Bates, Hannibel Lecter, Alien Queen, and those giant ants in Them! will follow me to the grave.

There are plenty of classic horror films throughout film history; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1922), Nosferatu (1922) Dracula ( 1931) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Alien (1979), Friday the 13th (1980) and Poltergist (1982). And the low-budget films The Blair Witch Project (1999), Saw (2004)  Paranormal Activity (2009) are still in the top 20 of movies that percentage wise are the most profitable movies of all time.

“Horror will always be the same. Horror will always be with us. It was around at the beginning in the birth of cinema. Edison did Frankenstein. It’s one genre that translates around the world. Big monster comes through the door everybody, in every country jumps up and screams. It’s a universal language. You don’t make horror movies to make money. you don’t make horror movies to be popular. You want to do it because you have a story to tell.”
John Carpenter
Interview with Robert Rodriguez on The Director’s Chair

The Devils Castle (1896 or 1897) written, directed and starring George Melies is often credited with being the first horror film, so ending with the beginning seems a fitting way to round out this post:

P.S. House of Usher (based on an Edger Allen Poe short story) starred Vincent Price and was directed by Roger Corman. Didn’t know that until I did some research writing this post. I have written much about Corman over the years and Carpenter names him as his inspiration from wanting to be a filmmaker.

Related posts:

Fear of the Unknown ““The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” H.P. Lovecraft
The Creature from…
Coppola & Roger Corman
The ‘Piranha’ Highway
Screenwriting Quote #189 (Darren Bousman)
Stephen Susco Q&A at Full Sail * Think primal. Fear and personal loss are the foundations of many fine films.
Writing ‘Silence of the Lambs’
Orson Welles at USC (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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