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“Prep is the movie you want to make. Production is the movie you think you’re making. And post is the movie you made.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

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“We were making industrials and commericals and all that, and of course, our passion was to make a feature film. So ten of us got together, the four of us from our company, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman who are  two of the actors in Night of the Living Dead  (1968)—they played Helen and Harry Cooper—and they had an audio production company in Pittsburgh, and another friend of ours who was a lawyer, and two of the outside people were lighting guys. Basically 10 of us kick in $600 a piece, bought a couple of cases of film. Black and white, 35 mm Plus-X, and some  Tri-X  for the night stuff, and rented that film house [featured in Night of the Living Dead]. And we went around to all the Goodwill stories, and got cans of paint, and we shot for two weeks and then had to break because we had no more money. Took the footage and brought it home, and cut whatever sequences that we complete enough to cut. And showed that to people and a couple of guys said it looks like you might actually be making a movie. And we said, we told you that’s what we were doing. And we were able to raise $5,000 here, $10,000 there. In the end there were 26 people that had $70,000 invested total and that finished the film. And we owed another $44,000 to people we promised would be paid some day. And luckily they did get paid. The film didn’t return a lot of money but it certainly went on and made careers for all of the people that wanted to go in the business.”
—Producer/director/writer George A. Romero
From a 1995 talk he gave in Orlando, Florida

P.S. The script did not indicate that the character Ben would be a black man, but Romero said Duane Jones was simply the best actor he could find. The ending mixed with Martin Luther King Jr. being killed in 1968  turned Night of the Living Dead into a social commentary.

Related links:
The Lingering Horror of ’Night of the Living Dead,’ The Hollywood Reporter (2018)

Scott W. Smith

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Don’t get scared away by the privacy settings on the below video, just click the “Watch on Vimeo” button and you‘ll be rewarded with a terrific DIY video where ASC cinematographer Lawrence Sher (Joker, The Hangover) walks you through how he recreates a shot from E.T. by using only things in his house and an iPhone. This is one way to use you quarantine time in creative ways. (Heck, this would be a good way to do a whole college class.)

Shot Craft — Staying Creative in Quarantine from American Cinematographer on Vimeo.

You can check out a matching article on the American Cinematography blog written by Jay Holben. Sher also created a website called Shotdeck that is full of movie images that can  serve as inspiration for your own ideas.  And you can follow Sher on Instagram (@lawrencesherdp) where he shares his recreations of famous movie scenes.

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Related posts:

The Best Film School 
10 Low-Budget Filmmaking Quotes 
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I do take a personal approach first. I’m not so much market-based. In a place like Amazon, where everyone is employed verses as opposed to self-employed, does have certain business mandates you’re trying to fill and address. But on a much more personal level, the first question is, How do I feel?What kind of response does it elicit in me? And there’s a handful of things that we immediately look for. I’m asking myself, am I going to be as excited about unlocking the mysteries that are contained within three to five years down the road as I am at this moment? Like the longevity— almost like a relationship. You have to look at the movie and interrogate it;  Is there enough to keep you hungry for a long time to unlock those pleasures?  For me, that often comes down to— I’m a very thematic-based individual— I look for what is in this? Whether it’s a design for living, or an overall philosophy. My team at Amazon sometimes teases me that I get fixated on certain themes, and I’m starting to see it. I very much like stories where’s it’s about me seeing you and you seeing me. When do we know that we’re actually recognized? How do we find our authentic self? I like stories about that. I like questions about the transformative power of love. I like that as a theme in movies.  Really what I’m getting at is I’m looking at something that is going to keep me leaning forward, engaged with the film, my mind spinning, my emotions stimulated, and I know that when it’s over I’m going to be compelled to talk about it with my friends that I’ve seen it with. I want to be heavily engaged and get a bit of a workout —whether it’s emotional, intellectual,  or visceral.”
Producer Ted Hope (Manchester by the Sea, Cold War)
Woodstock FilmFest, “Virtual Films & Conversations” 

Related posts:

Define What You Love & Ted Hope’s List of ‘32 Qualities of a Better Films’ 
‘Helping Others Rarely Hurts Anyone, Particularly Yourself’— Ted Hope 
Ted Hope on Finding a Safe Harbor from Liars and Cheats
40 Days of Emotions 
‘My Formula for the Perfect Sundance Film’—Producer Ted Hope
Ted Hope on Finding a Film’s Theme
‘A new and vibrant cinema’—Ted Hope
‘If I ran a film school…’—Ted Hope

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“In 1968, Allen [Daviau] and I started our careers side by side with the short film AMBLIN’. Allen was a wonderful artist, but his warmth and humanity were as powerful as his lens. He was a singular talent and a beautiful human being.”
—Steven Spielberg

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Cinematographer Allen Daviau died last week from complications due to COVID-19. He was nominated for five Academy Awards in Best Cinematography for his work on Bugsy, Avalon, Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and E.T. the Extra-Terrestial. (All incredibly done in a ten year run.)

He was part of the visual team that created one of the most iconic shots in movie history—Henry Thomas and E.T. magically riding in the air on a bicycle, silhouetted by the moon.

It’s hard to watch that scene on YouTube in 2020 knowing what a powerful moment that was when the movie hit theaters in 1982. I was in film school at the time and did not have cable TV or a VHS machine. (The majority did not back then.) So I went to a packed theater and had a shared mystical movie experience.

The sole Oscar-nomination for E.T. was for Melissa Mathison’s script. A script and that gave the film its mystical, spiritual aspect. This is how she described the interior of the space ship, ” We are in a greenhouse—a Gothic cathedral of a structure.” Much as been written about the death and resurrection of E.T. as well as his healing powers.

From the script I have, the “moon shot” isn’t even on the page. It just says:

EXT. SKY —NIGHT

The bicycle glides five feet over the tall grass and circles the landing site. 

                                                  ELLIOTT
                             Not so high! Not so high!

E.T. feels Elliott’s joy, and in the excitement of his own triumph, E.T. allows the ride to continue. The bicycle rises to the treetops. Elliot rides the bicycle, pedaling as hard as he can, steering through the treetops. He screams, laughing. 

Nothing about an iconic silhouetted “moon shot.”

Here’s what the “moon shot” looks like brought to life.

I’m not sure what role Daviau had in that shot. Oscar winner and effects cameraman Mike McAlister scouted for a week to find the right location and spent two night shooting it in Nicasio, California. All for a shot not originally in the script, but one that Spielberg obviously thought was necessary.

And Daviau was the director of photography on the film so one way or another that shot was his responsibility.  I was fortunate to hear Daviau speak when I was in film school, and while I don’t remember anything about that talk, he left images that I’ll never forget.

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

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The Color Purple

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Bugsy

P.S. A little more tucked inside Daviau  credits is the lesser remembered by the masses Fearless (1993). Written by Radael Yglesias and directed by Peter Weir, it is well worth your time to revisit the story of a man (Jeff Bridges) surviving a plane crash. (And another film that has a trail of writings about the spiritual aspects of that movie, including this one from the almways informative site Cinephilia & Beyond; Peter Weir’s ‘Fearless’ as a Soulful Slice of Life That Gently Examines the Human Condition.)

Related ASC article: The Cinematography of E.T.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“I wanted to move to a place where I could live for nothing, and I moved to New Hampshire . . . The best professional decision I have made was deciding to stay here once [Brooklyn Bridge] was nominated for an Oscar.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns (on leaving New York City)
After the Fact podcast interview

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Covered bridge in Gilford, NH

One of the shots that I saw as a film school student that influenced my photographic aesthetic was the tilt-up shot of the sunrise in the On Golden Pond (1981) title sequence.  They shot that enduring movie at Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I was in that area of the White Mountains over the weekend and delighted in the scenery even though it was winter, and the temperature was zero degrees (and my app said “feels like -20”) on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, I briefly stopped at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, visited  America’s oldest ski shopLahouts, ate lobster at Gordi’s Fish & Steak House (whose two owners were both on the U.S. Ski team), and stayed the night in the Waterville Valley (not far from where they shot On Golden Pond).  I took the above photo of the covered bridge near Gunstock Ski resort, a day after taking the photos below in Bretton Woods and Lincoln.

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Omni Mt. Washington, “#1 Best Ski Resort on the East Coast”
—Condé Nast Traveler

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Gordi’s—The perfect place for lobster at Loon Mountain

I didn’t have time to make it two hours southeast to Walpole, New Hampshire where one of the most accomplished modern filmmakers has lived and worked for the past four decades.

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns (who ironically became rich and famous making historical docs)
New York Times 

One hundred years from now documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (along with Steven Spielberg) will be remember as one of two giant American filmmakers of this era that will not only be well revered—but whose films will still be watched and appreciated. His films have covered a wide range of topics, including the Civil War, Jazz music, baseball, and his most recent 8-part PBS series on country music.

I don’t know the overall extent of filmmaking in New Hampshire, but just On Golden Pond being filmed there, and Ken Burns (and his team)—and filmmaker Dayton Duncan— living there is a rich enough history to impress me.  Here’s an illustration—with roots in New Hampshire— about the subtractive nature of filmmaking:

We live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it’s very much like our process of 40- to 50- to 60- to 75-to-1 shooting ratio. So, it’s distillation. It’s subtraction. It’s what doesn’t fit. At the same time, you are also not trying to simplify it to the place where it no longer resonates with the complexities that the thing has. Now, filmmakers are notorious for saying, ‘Well, that’s a good scene. Let’s not touch it. It’s working. That scene’s working.’ And I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room that says, ‘It’s complicated.’”
Ken Burns

I’m going through Burns’ Masterclass on documentary filmmaking now and will write some posts on it later this month. But here’s one last quote from Burns about rejection that everyone needs to understand.

“There’s never been a moment where I haven’t, on any given day of the year, been actively pursuing the raising of money to pay for these [films]. It didn’t get any easier as my success grew or the popularity of the films grew.”
Ken Burns
The Art of the Documentary by Megan Cunningham

And next time I go to New Hampshire, I hope to make it to Walpole where Burns happens to owns a restaurant—Burdick’s— and grocery store . (Read about it in Travel + Leisure.)  And I hope to one day stay at The Manor Inn On Golden Pond that is linked to the classic movie which starred Henry Fonda,  Katharine Hepburn,  Jane Fonda…and the loons.

Lastly, here are some creative people from New Hampshire; Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), his screenwriter brother Max,  and National Geographic VP of Production Matt Renner (The Cave) all grew up in the Oyster River area of New Hampshire. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Hotel New Hampshire) grew up in Essex, NH. Actress/writer Sarah Silverman was born and raised in New Hampshire.

P.S. Ken’s daughter, Sarah Burns—who was raised in Walpole and now lives in Brooklyn—and her filmmaker husband, David McMahon, co-wrote & directed  East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, that will begin airing on PBS March 24, 2020.

P.P.S. I drove through New Hampshire after my weeklong class on Writing and Directing the Documentary at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Until today (when I found the below video) I didn’t know that cinematographer Billy Williams—who was the director of photography for On Golden Pond) taught workshops in Maine in the past. Williams won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982) and is 91 years old. One of his workshop students was DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).

Filmmaking nitpick: On that sunrise (sunset?) tilt up shot from On Golden Pond they should have cut about 30 frames out to avoid the shake at the end of the shot. (It’s at the 1:13 mark of the video at the top of the post.) Always bugs me. I’m sure it bugs whoever was operating camera that it was left in.

Related quotes:
Emotional Archaeology
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns) 
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws

Related links:
The Cabin from On Golden Pond 
Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures 
Film in New Hampshire 

Scott W. Smith

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“Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change. Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release.”
Barack Obama

Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar won an Oscar Sunday night for their documentary American Factory, which they shot in—what I consider an unlikely place to lead them to Hollywood success—a factory in Moraine/Dayton, Ohio.

Both my grandmother and grandfather worked for NCR in Dayton, Ohio (where I was also born), and I had a great aunt who was a nurse at a GM factory there. In northeast Ohio, my paternal grandfather spent 30 years working for Youngstown Sheet and Tube. And I worked in a boat windshield factory in Florida one summer while in college. So while factories and Ohio may not get your heart pumping, that combination has a special place in my heart.

And obviously for Reichert and Bognar as well, as they also made the  documentary The Last Truck :Closing of a GM Plant.  A film nominated for an Oscar in 2009.

In the spirit of finding stories in your own back yard, Reichert and Bognar live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, just east of Dayton. Reichert went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs and has been nominated for an Oscar four times.

At the age of 73, and diagnosed with terminal cancer, it must have been fulfilling for Reichert to stand on the world stage and receive her first Oscar award.

Of course, it’s hard to miss that in Reichert’s acceptance speech that she’s probably the first person in Oscar history to both give a “Go Buckeyes” shoutout and quote Karl Marx. That will bring her friends and foes on both sides.

I’ve yet to see American Factory (which is currently on Netflix), so I don’t know if the filmmakers take a prescriptive, descriptive, subjective or objective  filmmaking approach to a Chinese billionaire bringing his car glass manufacturing plant in Ohio.

But she did say this on a recent interview:

“Some workers feel like the American dream is done. We are never going to get that back. And others say, you know you really have to believe in the American dream. And I think it’s really up for grabs. Is there an American dream still? Is there something that people can if they work hard and stick to the laws that they’re going to have a good life. Is that possible anymore? I think that’s a real question that I hope our film sort of raises. Is this the world we want to live in?”
Julia Reichert
Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

These are the questions, that in some ways, philosophy, religion, and politics have wrestled with for the past 200 years, and if you remove the American dream aspect, probably since the beginning of time. Long before capitalism, communism, socialism, and Make America Great Again were being debated.

It does feel like we are in a significant global transition period. If you watch 4-time Oscar winner Parasite (2019), it’s not hard to make the connection between daily financial struggles in Korea and those in Ohio. It’s also not hard to watch the documentary One Child Nation (2019), read current news about the spread of the deadly coronavirus, or track tariffs in China and realize how interconnected the world is these days.

Hat tip to Megan Cunningham for putting Julia Reichert on my radar. Cunningham wrote the book The Art of Documentary that I first read in 2006, and I’ve had the opportunity to produce and shoot projects with her company Magnet Media Films. In a LinkedIn post yesterday, Cunningham said Richert was a recipient of the 2016 Chicken and Egg Award . (The Chicken and Egg Award recognizes and elevates five female non-fiction directors each year with $50,000 unrestricted grants.)

Reichert wrote a book called Doing it yourself: A handbook on independent distribution that was published in 1977, and I’m not sure where you can find a copy.

P.S. From the back to the future file:  Watch the trailer to the 1986 film Gung Ho to see how an early Ron Howard film dealt with cultural differences as a Japanese company acquires a car manufacturer in western Pennsylvania.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“I was surprised at how relatable I found many Villagers’ pursuits. Their attempts to find connection, love and meaning were not so dissimilar from my own.”
Director (and recent college grad) Lance Oppenheim

A mistake that creative people often make is that interesting stories are somewhere else—usually far away exotic place. South Florida native Lance Oppenheim found the subject of his first documentary feature in a well-known retirement village in Central Florida.

Some Kind of Heaven premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

 

The Villages sits in the triangle between Orlando, Tampa, and Ocala and I wondered if the film was made in part by  one of the many film/digital/ journalism programs within an hour drive or so from the large retirement community (Full Sail, Seminole State, Valencia, UCF, University of Florida, USF, University of Tampa).  But it turns out the 23-year-old Oppenheim graduated in 2019 from Harvard University’s Visual and Environmental Studies program.

Oppenheim told Filmmaker Magazine that he started pursing filmmaking while in high school discovering  “crazy things happening in my backyard,” including documenting his grandfather’s last days with Alzheimer’s disease. He collected some student awards and fellowships along the way.

He then made three short docs for New York Times OpDocs. Here’s one of those videos that was a Staff Pick on Vimeo. Followed by a short piece Long Term Parking about people living in a parking lot at the LAX airport.

I don’t have any further information on distribution plans for Some Kind of Heaven, but it will be playing February 19th at MoMA in New York City as part of Doc Fortnight 2020.

Related posts:
Starting Small
Aiming for Small Scale Success First 

Scott W. Smith

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“We didn’t do any color filtration….”
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on shooting Ford v Ferrari

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Ford v Ferrari: To get that golden look (without filters or visual effects), you have to shoot at the golden (or magic) hour

Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron once said that the problem with filmmaking is there is “never enough time or money.” While I was reading this morning about the making of Ford v Ferrari that Cameron quote popped into my mind.

When I lived in LA in the eighties there was a remote area just outside of the edges of the San Fernando Valley called Agua Dulce.  Because it’s still in LA County (yet very unlike most of LA, movies like Blazing Saddles and 127 Hours were shot there. I did some rock climbing and photography there. Fast forward 30+ years and the surrounding area is no longer remote. That poses some challenges to those wanting to shoot there.

They filmed parts of Ford v Ferrari in what is known as the Antelope Valley at the Agua Dulce Airport near Lancaster/Rosamond/Palmdale, CA. An area now with a population of over 300,000 people.

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“At Agua Dulce, because of noise restrictions, we could only shoot until 10 p.m. — and since it was late summer, we couldn’t start rolling on our night work until 8 p.m.. So each day we’d have a two-hour window to complete our night work.”
Phedon Papamichael
American Cinematographer
“Lap of Honor” by David Hearing
December 2019, pages 40-42

If a $100 million budget has limitations (or $200 million in Avatar‘s case) then the chances are pretty good that you will not have enough time or money on the productions you work on. So what do you do? You embrace your limitations. It’s one of my favorite concepts: Embrace your limitations.

So all those beautiful sunset shots you see in Ford v Ferrari were shot in just two hour chunks.

On the director’s commentary of Rain Man, Barry Levinson talks about how they only had a few hours to shoot the sequence where Tom Cruise teaches Dustin Hoffman how to dance in a high dollar hotel suite overlooking Las Vegas.

The DP for the Levinson directed The Natural (1984) was Caleb Deschanel.  A film that had many exteriors filmed in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is golden.

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Decschanel also shot The Right Stuff which Papamichael said was an inspiration to him on Ford v Ferrari.

Another way of embracing you limitations is to know what you need to sell the shot. Years ago I shot an interview with a surfer in Atlantic Beach, FL. We were shooting an interior shot with the beach in the background. We had an HMI Joker light so we were able to not have the exterior background blowout. But it was a hazy day and small one-foot waves, so it was hard to tell we were at the beach. We embraced our limitations and simply propped up a colorful surfboard outside framing it behind her and it help sell that we were at the beach.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Have you ever wondered why it had to be so hard to get through school? Or just make it from day to day? Well, that’s because what you were building (your foundation) had to be strong enough to support the weight of whatever you could dream. And if you’re like me, you’re a huge dreamer.”
Tyler Perry
2016 Tuskegee University commencement speech  

How big is Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia? Well, as CBS’s Norah O’Donnell points out, if you take the Los Angeles/Burbank studios of Warner Bros., Paramount, and Disney and combined them together—they’d still be smaller than Tyler Perry’s 330 acres studio.

Scott W. Smith 

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