Archive for the ‘filmmaking’ Category

“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.

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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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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“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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“Without a network, creative work does not endure…without Paris, there is no Hemingway.”
Jeff Goins
The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has his filmmaking network of people down in Austin, but he also has a literal network—El Rey Network. And when you own a network you can line up interviews with your director friends, which is exactly what The Director’s Chair with Robert Rodriguez is all about.

“It was a thrill to be able to feel that I was a director from a studio at 24 or 25, but when I came out to Hollywood and was making Finian’s Rainbow…everything I wanted to do wasn’t somehow permitted. I wanted to make the film on location—it was about sharecroppers in Kentucky and I go, ‘Can I go to Kentucky and have dancers dancing around with tobacco?’, ‘Oh no, no, we gotta do it on the sets from Camelot.’ I used to sit there with George Lucas, who was about 19, and we would just grump about we couldn’t do this and we can’t do that. And we started to fantasize, let’s go make a film driving across the country. And we’ll make a truck that has all the necessary equipment and we won’t even know exactly what we’re going to shoot. If we hear there’s mine disaster we’ll all go to the mine disaster and incorporate that into the movie. We made The Rain People that way. And then we were so mobile that we said, well gee, we have a whole studio in a truck, we don’t have to go back to L.A., we can go to San Francisco and be close enough to L.A. to have the access to the actors and the prop houses, and the resources, and not be in the center of it. I essentially combined the culture of a theater club with the reality of filmmaking as we learned at USC and UCLA and that was Zoetrope.”
Oscar-Winning writer/producer/director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Patton)
Interview with Robert Rodriguez
The Director’s Chair, Episode 5

The Coppola family, food & film model is much of what Rodriguez has created in Austin, Texas—which has an entrenched film community that’s avoided being in the center of the film business. This is what Rodriguez told Coppola in the above interview:

“Family and food and film kind of all seem to go together for you, and it inspired me to do that. I started my own studio [Troublemaker Studios]. I work with my family, and I’ve had other filmmakers come to my sets and see that I’m working with my kids—they’ve gone off and worked with their kids and have done fantastic work. You’ve kind of started this little revolution.”

P.S. If you want to add faith to family, food & film outside L.A., look at what the writer/director team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick of Kendrick Brothers Productions are doing in (an unlikely place) Albany, Georgia. This past weekend their film War Room ended up #1 at the domestic box office, ending Straight Outta Compton‘s three week run in the top spot. Produced by Sony Pictures for $3 million War Room hasn’t even been out two weeks and has passed $30 million at the box office. I think it’s the first time a specifically Christian faith based film has finished #1 at the box office. Back in 2008 I wrote the post Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry and talked about the niche that Perry and the Kendrick Brothers were cooking down in Georgia.

Related posts:
‘Who said art had to cost money?’—Coppola
‘Take a Risk’—Coppola
Coppola & Roger Corman
The Francis Ford Coppola Way
Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio
‘Super-Serving Your Niche’

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t mind failing, I just don’t like failing in front of a bunch of other people.”
Robert Rodriguez
(On why he shot El Mariachi in Mexico as a one-man crew)

Blame it on Mexico if you need a reason
Say too much guitar music, tequila, salt and lime
Blame it on Mexico lyrics by Darrell Staedtler

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know I like unlikely places and Acuña, Coahuila definitely qualifies as unlikely place to be a footnote in film history. That city about three hours west of San Antonio, Texas, just across the border into Mexico is where Robert Rodriguez shot El Mariachi (1992). A film that would go on to win the Audience Award at Sundance, launch Rodriguez’s film career, and help kick start a modern do-it-yourself independent film movement.

Here are some of the limitations that Robert Rodriguez had in making his first feature film;

—One non-sync, film camera with two lens
—One take of everything (because two takes would have doubled the budget)
—One ranch in Mexico that a friend owned
—One bar
—One pitbull
—One turtle
—Zero true film lights (just two clip-on hardware store lights with 200 watts bulbs)

“There’s a freedom of limitations. It’s more freeing to know I can only use these items; turtle, bar, ranch. You’re almost completely free within that. You can almost doing, not anything—because that would be too many options. One of my favorite films that I did with Quentin was called Four Rooms where they said, we’re all doing short films and we all have the same criteria; it has to be set in one room, has to be New Year’s Eve, and you have to use the bellhop. The freedom of limitations was enormous. When you watch that short and it goes all over the room—by the end we burn down the room. It was almost more exciting to know you were in a box, and you could be creative within that box. Now that so many things* are available to you want to limit yourself in a way. So I try to limit time, I try to limit money, so we can still keep that essence of creativity and deliver something on the screen that just looks much bigger. So you can retain your creative freedom. Because if you start spending more money, suddenly the financiers—rightfully so—the studios, the executives will be over your shoulder constantly questioning every move you make because they want their money back. But if you keep the budget low it’s a win-win situation.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
Interview with Tim Ferriss

* Part of the “so many things available to you” these days that Rodriguez didn’t have access to that many people think they need; sliders, drones, 4K cameras, Steadicam/MOVI, non-linear editors (AVID/Permeire/FCPX), After Effects/Motion, color correction software, Red Rock/Zacuto camera accessories, a zillion plug-ins, etc.etc. Before you buy that “must have” piece of equipment remind yourself of this bit of Rodriguez wisdom; “If you want to make a film on a really low budget you can’t spend on anything…If you start that money hose going you just can’t stop it. Think of a creative way to get around your problem.”

P.S. Make a point to come back Tuesday for a post on the analytical vs. intuitive side of filmmaking and screenwriting, as I continue my month of Robert Rodriguez-centered posts.

Scott W. Smith 

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Living a Creative Life

“If film died tomorrow I’d be sculpting, or painting, or something else that involved creativity. So really what I am is someone who lives a creative life. Not just in work, but when I’m not working…The creative process blows me away… And it applies to anything that you do. How you raise your children, how you cook food, how you run a business. Creativity is so much a part of that. When people say, oh, you do so many things you’re a musician, you’re a painter, you edit, you’re a composer, you’re the cinematographer, you do so many different things and I go, no, I only do one thing— I live a creative life.

“When you put creativity in everything, everything becomes available to you. Anything that has a creative aspect is suddenly yours to go and do. And there’s no separation between work and play. I mean I work ‘in my house’ that’s where I write my scripts, come up with my ideas while I’m playing with my kids, while I’m cooking them a meal which is a creative exercise in itself. And then I go upstairs and do some editing—edit a scene , and then I can hear the kind of music and then I’ll walk over to this room and do music for it, and then I’m not sure how I’m going to get into this character’s head, maybe I’ll paint him first and see visually what he looks like, or musically what he sounds like.  And you can work completely non-linear that way because you realize, I can do anything I want because everything can be creative. Even a business call. You go this is kind of out of my league, but let me add my creativity to it and maybe that will solve something that no one else will be able to solve, and sure enough, you can always rely on creatively to win the day in a lot of areas.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
Interview with Tim Ferriss

Related posts:
The Best Film School
Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
One of the Benefits of Being Outside Hollywood

Scott W. Smith

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From Scotland to Sundance

“[John Maclean] told me the idea, showed me the script, and then told me he wanted to shoot it on a mobile phone. I thought, ‘Hm, this guy, he’s an original.’ And so that experience went well, and then it was like okay, let’s shoot another short with the aim of getting financing for a feature film.”
Actor Michael Fassbender (X-Men, Inglourious Basterds) on making the short film Man on a Motorcycle (2009)

“I studied Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh Art School and The Royal College of Art in London. After graduating I formed The Beta Band with a couple of friends. I made many of the music videos, which were very DIY and tried to be short films in style and a great training ground for film making with little to no budget.”
Writer/director John Maclean
Indiewire/Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers

Since my last post (Bob Dylan & Your Filmmaking Career) was a mixture of music, filmmaking, and being from places far outside the Hollywood system I thought I’d point out a great example of someone from Scotland who’s making a great go of it recently.

Scottish filmmaker John Maclean’s IMDB credits actually begin in 2000 for a song on the soundtrack of the well regarded film High Fidelity.  He made some videos with a couple of bands he was in through the 2000s (what he calls his film school), and in 2008/09 he wrote and directed a short film called Man on a Motorcycle using a smartphone to shoot with four actors. (One of those actors happened to be Michael Fassbender who gave Maclean one day of shooting.)

That went well enough that Maclean and Fassbender made a second short film, Pitch Black Heist, which won a BAFTA award.

That led to writing and directing his first feature film Slow West (again with Fassbender) which  was the Grand Jury World Cinema Prize winner at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Back when I started this blog, Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, in ’08 who would have bet that there would be a filmmaker from Scotland that year who would make his first short film using a cell phone and just six years later end up a Sundance winner? (And to make those odds worse that that film would be a historical western set in Colorado and shot in New Zealand)

If you want to get a glimpse what shaped Maclean into a filmmaker beyond studying drawing and painting in college and being in bands for a decade here’s the answer when asked what filmmakers inspired him :

“The work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Bresson, Brunuel, Carpenter, Allen , Spielberg, Scorsese, Bergman, Hughes, Kurosawa, Denis, Herzog, Wilder, Altman, Cassavetes, Hitchcock, Lynch , Polanski, Leone, Tarkovsky, Lumet.”

P.S. Since Maclean mentioned Bresson it trigger a memory that I think it was either an interview with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) or in his book Transcendental Style in Film where he mentioned watching Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest once a year. It’s not only where you’re from that gives you a unique voice, but the kinds of movies you ingest.

Scott W. Smith

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