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Before writer/director Lulu Wang made an international splash this year for her movie The Farewell, one of her day jobs was producing videos for lawyers to be used in legal cases.

“I was basically going to people’s homes – you know, people who had been severely injured, people who, oftentimes, their injuries weren’t visible to the eye, you know, which meant a lot of brain damage cases. I would go into people’s homes and just interview the – you know, the client and sometimes their family to better understand the extent of their injuries.

“So we – it was called a day in a life video, and so you also would – I would include footage from before the injury occurred and – to see, you know, what they were capable of, what their dreams and aspirations were. And sometimes it would be as mundane as just shooting this person trying to make breakfast, you know, because if this client walks into a courtroom and gets on a stand, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to determine what the extent of their injuries are by just hearing them talk. You might think, well, maybe they’re not the brightest person, but, you know, they seem fine to me. But you would – if I, you know, was with them, watching them make breakfast, they would take the eggs out and then go back to the refrigerator and go grab eggs and forget where they put the eggs. You know, there’s all of these little nuances of how the – of how brain injury affects a person’s day-to-day life that I had to show.

“So there was that. I did some class action cases as well. . . . I found it very fascinating. It was very difficult, too, you know, because you meet somebody for, you know, 10 minutes, and then you’re in their home and you’re asking them to open up their lives to you. And I – you know, I was usually there by myself, maybe with one other person who was helping me set up the camera and maybe a light or something.

“But you know, there’s a lot of stories, and it – I think it also helped me to really stay grounded because no matter what fictional story I was working on, I was still doing this at the same time.”
Lulu Wang
NPR interview with Terry Gross

And in various interviews Lulu Wang has done, here are some other life experiences that show the trajectory of her career before making The Farewell. 
—She was born in China, and moved to the United States (Miami) when she was six.
—She went to a arts conservatory high school where she was a good enough pianist that her teachers thought she could have a career playing the piano, but she didn’t have enough passion for music. (New World School of the Arts in Miami is also where playwright and Oscar-winning Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney went to high school.)
—She earned her four year degree from Boston College, where she only took one  photography class and one filmmaking class. But she did well enough in school that she was accepted into law school on a full scholarship. But she didn’t have enough passion for law to continue that route.
—She moved to Los Angeles and because she could speak Mandarin Chinese ended up doing translation work on the film Rush Hour 3.
—She made some short films, and also shot some bar mitzvah videos.
—In 2016, her story What You Don’t Know was part the radio broadcast This American Life. She got an option to write the screenplay version that eventually got produced with her directing and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
—The film was released in the United States in July.
—Last night Awkwafina won best actress at the Gotham Awards for her lead role in The Farewell.

P.S. After graduating from NYU film school, Sean Baker (The Florida Project) worked on wedding and corporate videos, and explains why it’s good training for filmmakers.

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

Scott W. Smith

 

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“[Hollywood has] welcomed change with about the same relish the dinosaurs welcomed the Ice Age.”
Stephen Galloway
The Hollywood Reporter

“I get asked all the time, ‘Where does this stop? When does it stop?’ The truth is that it is only getting started.”
Brett Sappington (on the growing number of streaming services)
A senior Parks Associates analyst and researcher

OscarEmmy

In the New York Times article, The Streaming Era Has Finally Arrived. Everything Is About to Change,” Brooks Barnes writes that the streaming era is a once in a generation disruption—like the shift away from silent movies or the introduction of broadcast television, or cable decades after that.

He points out that how in 2018 there were 495 scripted original series, and says that all the work is making it “gravy time” for many. Just this month Disney Plus and Apple Plus TV added more viewing choices to audiences to the over 250 online choices out there. (Ever heard of Horse Lifestyle TV? As the saying goes, “there are riches in niches.” Just ask Tyler Perry.)

No doubt there will be audience fatigue with all of these choices, and some consolidation and mergers of shows and companies, but we are living in a streaming world—at least until the next disruption in 10, 20, or 30 years. And with the blending of movies, broadcast/cable TV, and streaming, the entertsinment status quo is in the early stages of a major earthquake leading to speculations never imagined even a year ago.

“With more original movies bypassing big screens, the line between TV and film is blurring, prompting once-unthinkable operating questions. Studios, for instance, employ separate executive teams to oversee the development and production of movies and television series. Should that siloed approach end? There has even been some muttering about whether the Emmys and the Oscars should merge.”
Brooks Barnes

Barnes is referring to a The Hollywood Reporter article by Stephen Galloway this summer where he addressed what all of these streaming changes mean at award time.  Netflix’s Roma last year kicked off the debate on when the foreign-languge film, produced by a streaming company, with a limited theatrical run, was up for a Best Picture Oscar.  (it did win Best Foreign Film, but lost to Green Book for Best Picture.

But it’s just a matter of time before a streaming company wins a Best Picture Oscar—perhaps The Irishmen, which Netflix releases next week will be that picture. Either way, the provocative question is Will the Oscars and Emmys Merge in the Streaming Era?

That’s as fun to speculate as a joke starting with, “An Emmy and a Oscar walk into a bar. . . .”

P.S. Ten years ago I watched my first streaming show on my computer (Cocaine Cowboys on Netflix) and it took me about 2.3 seconds to realize that the VHS/DVD rental business was finished. Blockbuster went bankrupt. Blockbuster at its peak had 9,000 stores, but today there is just one left in the entire world. I don’t know what the the entertainment landscape will look like in ten years, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that studios will begin to sell chucks of real estate because “There’s gold in them thar hills.” Movies can be made anywhere—have you see Tyler Perry’s new Atlanta studio?—and real estate in Los Angeles is just crazy expensive.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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If you’re on Twitter, two writer/directors that I’d recommend you follow are Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place, Haunt) who go by @beckandwoods on Twitter. Here’s an example of one of their tweets.

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“Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. And this is a beautiful place.”
Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez

If you like comebacks and reversals then the 2018-2019 Washington Nationals are your team. There aren’t too many people in May 2019 who would have predicted that the Washington Nationals at the end of October would be World Series champs. After all, their record at that point was 19-31 and one predictor gave them a .05% of winning the World Series.  Forget the playoffs, just finishing with a winning record seemed a long shot. A common question debated was when Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez would be fired.

But last Wednesday the Nationals came back in game 7, just like they had all year, to win that game—and their first World Series championship in franchise history. And on Saturday they celebrated with a parade in Washington, D.C.

Since this is a blog with a focus on screenwriting and filmmaking, let me look at the Nationals’ accomplishment from that perspective. As I’ve mentioned before, Martinez and I went to the Lake Howell High School with him beginning to attend the year after I graduated. I was in my first year of college and working for the Sanford Herald and covered some of the games Martinez played.

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Here’s an article published on March 15, 1981 where I wrote “Martinez, a pitcher-left fielder, transferred from New York two weeks ago. [Coach Birto] Benjamin has high hopes for his left-handed junior.”

In a recent interview Benjamin thought Martinez could play college ball and even had  the big league potential, but he never envisioned Martinez would have the wild success he’s had as a coach and manager. Martinez turned down a lowball pro offer to play baseball at what is now Valencia College.

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Dave Martinez at Valencia College in 1982

In 1983 Martinez signed with the Chicago Cubs and played briefly with the Iowa Cubs in the Quad Cites. In 1986, he did something that every Little League player dreams of doing—he was playing baseball in the major leagues.

He had a 15-year career as a player, and that alone is a major accomplishment. In the whole history of Lake Howell only two players have made it to the major leagues. The second being Eddie Taubensee—who I also covered working for the Herald.

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Eddie Taubensee a few years before he was a 6’4″ MLB player

The thing that both Martinez and Taubensee have in common is that long before they were playing Major League Baseball, they were honing their skills in Little League. Martinez in Long Island and Taubensee in Altamonte Springs. I imagine both of them were playing competitive baseball for a 10-12 years before they stepped on a major league field.

They had small victories along the way. Their talent, skill, accomplishments, hard work and potential became to shine over the rest. I don’t think screenwriting and filmmaking is any different. Except screenwriters and filmmakers sometimes think they are going to spring up to the Oscar stage from a dream they had yesterday. (Even Diablo Cody, who is the rare screenwriter who did win an Oscar in her first screenplay—Juno—said that she had been writing poetry and short stories everyday since she was 12. That was a 15+year overnight success.)

I enjoyed my year of working as a sports reporter and photographer. I watched a lot of talented players—none better than Tim Raines who in 2017 was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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In 2009 I compared working screenwriters to NFL player in the post How Much Do Screenwriters Make? that has now been viewed more than 100,000 times. It was a comparison I now here a few times a year, but one I’d never heard or read before. Check it out if you’ve never read it before.

Some closing encouraging advice comes from one of my acting teachers back in the day. He actually used a baseball metaphor to encourage young actors, “Just because you can’t be Babe Ruth, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy playing the game.” You can unpack that in any way you want. But without Little League coaches enjoying the game, Martinez probably wouldn’t have honed his baseball skills at a young age. There’s not going to be another Steven Spielberg, but there are going to be filmmakers creating theatrical and streaming entertainment. And there’s going to be others all around the world that take what they learn and become content creators and making a living with their technical and creative skills.

My biggest dream at 19 years old was to be a photographer some day for Sports Illustrated magazine. But by the time I was 20 I began to tire of doing sports photography. I remember clearly thinking after one year that I didn’t want to be taking pictures of people sliding into home when I was 30-years old. (When you’re 20 you tend to think of 30 as ancient.) But looking back it was a great experience. And Dave Martinez’s success gave me a good excuse to revisit that era of my life. (An era where I didn’t have the benefit of auto focus lens or an auto-winder to take the photos below.)

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Scott W. Smith

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This is a follow-up to my last post (The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words) and it’s advice that comes from three Oscar winners. And it has to do with how you as a director capture wide shots, medium shots, and close-up shots in any given scene.

Director Spike Lee says you not only want to hire a talented director of photography (DP), but one who is also efficient. That’s a big part of what is going to help you keep on schedule and make your days. And the lower the budget, the fewer days you have to shoot your film.

And it’s not only the shooting schedule that’s important. Lee says, “Actors come to the set ready to work.” They’ve already been through hair, makeup, and wardrobe so they don’t want to be sitting in their trailers while the DP tinkers with lighting.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese said that back in the ’80s when he was coming off a lull in his career he had smaller budgets to work. In one case he needed 75 shots in three days, but the budget only allowed for two days so they cut out 25 shots and scheduled to shoot 25 shots per day over the two days they had. The way they kept on schedule was to allow x-amount of time for each shot—10 minutes for one shot, 20 minutes for another, and 45 minutes for a more complicated shot. If they didn’t get what they needed in that time frame, they had to move on.

Oscar winner Jodie Foster drives home the point of how to be efficient in your shooting:

“There are a lot of things that waste time on movies. For example, you have five setups, you have one incredibly wide shot, and the other ones are five little pieces you’re going in for. Your wide shot— you can barely see their mouths move. So please don’t do 25 takes of the entire scene and print them all, and give your actors notes based on this wide shot. You’re probably only going to need one take or maybe two takes. Go in and get the other stuff afterwards and don’t waste all of your time getting the wide shot perfectly. Allow yourself to go in for the other shots.

“With movement very often, when you start a move and you know you’re going to keep this move, you want the beginning of the move and the end of the move. And that means you’re going to be stuck on this shot for the whole thing. If you make that decision that you’re going to keep that shot, then you don’t need those lines for any of the other pieces of coverage. So you don’t need to get everything perfect if you know that you have the money shots or the shots that are really in your head are working. So that’s where a lot of time gets spent, people want everything perfect and they don’t have an understanding of their cutting patterns or their potential cutting pattern. And they heard that old adage ‘Get coverage, get everything. Get every choice you possible have.‘ Large films can afford to not make choices. A little movie—gotta make choices and keep moving on.”
Jodie Foster
Masterclass, Shooting Your Film

So don’t worry about getting every take perfect (it won’t happen anyway), and have a clear vision going into the scene of what you envision the final edited scene to be. Another trick Lee has used throughout his career is to do scenes in one take. Steven Spielberg is a master of the oner–some that are simple and some that are quite complex. (Shots that often involve wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups all in one long take.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“A big theme for me is people in spiritual crisis. I keep coming back to this, every movie that I tend to be drawn to, that I want to spend years on, is about somebody going through a spiritual crisis. And this person—this man or this woman—is trying to make sense of their life because they’re trying to get better instead of worse . . . In many cases that is the whole object of the film. To take that person from a lost state, from a broken state, to a state where they can sudden start to repair themselves.”
Actor/director Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate)
Masterclass

Related post:
The Caterpillar and the Butterfly Every story is ‘The Caterpillar and the Butterfly.’”–Blake Snyder
Screenwriting & Slavery to Freedom “In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”—John Truby
‘Stories are about people who are messed up’ “Stories are about people who are messed up, and need to figure out a way through it.”—Judd Apatow

Scott W. Smith

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“I didn’t go to film school—I went to films.”
Quentin Tarantino

Note: I’ll start The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School with a list of 10, and then add and update this post from time to time. There will be spoilers. And I’m sure some of these notes will make it into the final draft of my almost finished book.

It’s unusual for me to write much about movies while they are still in theaters because there hasn’t been enough time to reflect on them. It’s not in the general collective consciousness yet.

But I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an instant classic. And while I don’t know how many $90 million original stories are going to be made in the future, I think there are things to take away from Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film that can help a filmmaker of any budget.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun 50 times. The thing about watching a single film 50 times—verses say, 50 films—is you get a deep understanding of how the film was made.

I have seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seven times in theaters in the first seven weeks of its release. (Apparently, I’m on the once a week as needed plan.) Here are some things I’ve observed. Please feel free to comment on or send me an email so I can continue to make this a valuable resource for others.

  1. Embrace Limitations
    “It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”—Francis Ford Coppola
    Though Once Upon a Time runs two hours and 41 minutes it centers around just three characters: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  While there is a great supporting cast those are the three characters whose point of views Tarantino focused on. And along with those three characters there are three stories lines. A) Rick’s career and buddy relationship with Cliff. B) Cliff’s dog and excursion to Spahn Ranch where the Mason cult lives. C) A few days in the life of actress Sharon Tate. These three stories are connected in the climax and resolution at the end of the story.  Essentially the movie takes place over just three days in 1969, and is limited to a few locations. Rick’s western film set, Rick’s house and Sharon’s house (just one crane shot away), Spahn Ranch (an run down exterior movie set used on old westerns), and the streets of L.A. Cliff’s trailer, three restaurants, LAX airport and insert shots are sprinkled in, but the main story takes place on just a handful of locations. (Not that it matters as much on a $90 million budget, but using limited characters for limited days cuts down on wardrobe costs. I imagine they could have dressed Cliff for under $1,000 for the entire shoot—including rental of that 1960s era scuba outfit.)
  2. Ticking clock/Bomb Under the Table 
    “As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
    —Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
    On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
    Hitchcock explained that if the audience saw a bomb under the table as two characters talk that the most mundane conversation is riveting because there is built in suspense because of the danger involved. At some point we expect that bomb to go off. Tarantino doesn’t even show the bomb under the table—because of the horrific events of August 9, 1969 you’re expected to know that going in to the theaters. The clock is ticking before the movie starts.
    The Bomb Under the Table
    Ticking Clock (Tip #103)
  3. Major Dramatic Question
    The the first major dramatic question was set up in the second scene when Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) lays out Rick’s career options. Keep doing bad guy guest appearances on TV and watch his career die, or go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. After that meeting Rick sees Sharon and her director husband Roman Polanski in passing and says to Cliff that he’s, “One pool party away from staring in a Polanski movie.” The other major question is just how is this film going to end? How do Sharon Tate, Cliff, Rick, and the Mason cult collide at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon?
    The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
  4. Characters/Casting
    Tarantino said he could do five movies just on Cliff Booth’s time in World War II. That’s indicative of the layers of reserves that Tarantino had for the characters he was writing. So he wrote some fascinating characters you want to hang out with and in doing so attracted an incredible cast of actors working at the highest level of craft.
    Writing Actor Bait
  5. Conflict
    The story is full of conflict on every level. Rick with his career. Rick and his alcohol. Rick and his lines of dialogue. Cliff and the gang at Spahn Ranch. Cliff getting kicked off a movie lot. Cliff underemployed as a stuntman. Cliff confronted by someone with a gun telling him, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Even Sharon Tate as a ray of sunshine has a cloud of conflict over her as we the audience know what happened to her in real life.
    Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
  6. Theme
    Rick tells the 8-year-old Trudi that he’s reading a book about a character named Easy Breezy, and she asks him, “Where are you in it?” It’s a line of double meaning. He’s technically on page so and so, but where he’s really in it is the main character Easy Breezy who as Rick explains, “He’s not the best anymore. Far from it. Coming to terms with being slightly more useless everyday.” It’s an echo of that other cowboy named Woody who is coming to the end of the line at the start of Toy Story 3. Perhaps one time movie star/singer Tad Hunter said it best in the doc Tad Hunter Confidential, “Products of Hollywood are interchangeable, and ultimately replaceable.” (Hunter was so big in the 1950s that he once got a role over Paul Newman and James Dean, and had a record knock Elvis out of the #1 position on the charts. But he didn’t make the transitiona smoothly into the new Hollywood of the late ’60s.)
    Writing from Theme
  7. Restraint 
    Tarantino is a fan of the exploitation films—the low budget ones that played on double bills at drive in theaters. Films that often centered around prisons, bikers, stock car races, and teenagers. They came with titles like Switchblade Sisters, Caged Heat, Werewolves on Wheels, and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. They usually had a mix of gratuitous sex and violence.  Knowing that Spahn Ranch was a place where Charlie Mason attracted teenage girls (as young as 15) for sex and drugs (along with his racist rants), Tarantino could have easily exploited a situation where young girls were dropping acid and running around naked. He could have shown the charismatic side of Manson that allowed him to befriend record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson—both who visited Manson and the girls at Spahn Ranch. But he didn’t. And by Cliff simply turning down Pussycat’s sexual offer sure seemed like a post-Weinstein/Epstein era touch. And once upon a time, producers would have see shooting at the Playboy Mansion an excuse to show at least one topless female in the pool.
  8. Setups and payoffs
    The three big payoffs are A) Brad Pitt is a likable who is also dangerous. He’s a war hero who is rumored to have killed his wife and can hold his own with Bruce Lee, and doesn’t like people messing with his bosses car. B) Brady is a pit bull who eats “Good food for mean dogs” and is under Cliff’s control. C) Rick spent two weeks learning how to use a flamethrower on the set of The 14 Fists of McClusky. Cliff, Brandy, Rick (and his flame thrower) are all set up early in the story and paid off when the impact would be most felt.
    Setups & Payoffs
  9. Climax
    “Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene.”–  Francis Marion
    What can I say? There was a pit bull, a can of dog food, and a flamethrower all set in action to stop evil (all to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). Depending on how you count it the movie ends one or two scenes after the climax. 
    Francis Marion on Movie Endings (80 Year Old Advice)

  10. Catharsis -—For those that thought the climax was excessively brutal perhaps didn’t carry around four decades of memories of knowing that six people were shot, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—including Sharon Tate who was 8 1/2 months pregnant when the Manson cult killed her. There have been worst murders before and since then, but for whatever reason the Tate/Labianca murders went down as some of the most shocking of the 20th century. (Polish filmmaker Wojciech Frykowski was stabbed 51 times at the Tate home.) Tarantino’s reworking of history was a cleansing of sorts. I thought he earned his ending.
    Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)
  11. Resolution
    In the final scene Rick gets invited up to Sharon’s house to meet her and her friends and while it took an unusual “pool party” it is a nice bookend to what was setup early in the movie. Who knows, maybe Rick will land Jack Nicholson’s role in Chinatown and have a career in movies that mirrors the transition that Clint Eastwood and Burt Renyolds made going from TV cowboy actors to movie stars.
    Earn Your Ending
  12. Selling the shot
    One of the challenges of shooting Once Upon a Time was making Los Angeles look like it did in 1969. Old western movie sets and midcentury modern houses helped do some of the heavy lifting. The exterior driving shots in L.A. had to be a challenge. In interviews Tarantino said the key was to find two or three blocks that are somewhat generic and then you dress (or in some cases build facades) to help sell the shots as 1969. Often times these changes are done digitally, but Tarantino likes to do it old school. One simple thing the design team did was rent a large Greyhound bus. It’s in at least four different scenes. I imagine those are not hard to rent and because they are long can block a lot of modern signs and buildings.  Sometimes low tech is the easy fix.
  13. Two characters talking
    Tarantino, like Aaron Sorkin, is a verbal writer. So it’s no surprise that he leans into dialogue quite a bit in Once Upon a Time. But one of the secrets of writing great dialogue scenes is they are often reduced to two people talking. The simplicity of it just makes it easier to follow. So in Once Upon a Time you these scenes:
    Rick talking to Cliff
    Cliff talking to Marvin
    Cliff talking to his dog Brandy
    Sharon talking to Jay
    Rick talking to Sam Wannamaker
    Rick talking to Jim Stacy
    Cliff talking to Pussycat
    Cliff talking to Squeaky
    Cliff talking to George Spahn
    Rick talking to Trudi
    Rick talking to Johnny Madrid (the perfect old west cowboy name)
    Cliff talking (and fighting) to Bruce Lee
    Cliff talking (and beating up) Clem
    Rick talking to Randy
    Cliff talking to Randy
    While there are some great visuals throughout Once Upon a Time (and Sharon’s persona is largely communicated non-verbally),  I’d estimate 90% of the movie is essentially two characters talking.
  14. Emotions
    “Everything I write is an emotional catharsis. It’s my way of exercising demons.”—Diablo Cody
    Tarantino exercises some demons in Once Upon a Time and spreads a healthy dose of emotions throughout the movie. And the music and cinematography heighten those emotions. There’s anger (Rick’s outrage in trailer), fear (when Cliff walking down the hallway toward George’s room), joy (Sharon enjoying people enjoying the movie she’s in), and the list goes on.
    Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
  15. Tapping into what audiences want
    Aaron Sorkin says two things that always fascinate audiences are times of transition and a look behind the curtain.  In Once Upon a Time Tarantino does both. He sets in story in 1969 was one of the height of one of the biggest transitional periods in modern American history, and he shows a behind the scene look of how movies are made lives of those who work in the film industry.
  16. Begin with the end in mind
    While beginning with the end in mind is common advice in everything from building a business to building a house, it has not been the way that Tarantino has traditionally worked. Usually he says he knows about the midway part of his script before he starts writing, then the character lead the way to the end. But with Once Upon a Time he knew the ending at the start.
  17. Relationships
    “Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”—Lindsay Doran
    At the end of Once Upon a Time Rick makes a point to tell Cliff (just before the ambulance takes Cliff to the hospital) that he’s a good friend and Cliff simply responds, “I try.” We sense that though Cliff may not be working for Rick anymore that they are forever friends. After that Rick starts a new relationship with his next door neighbor Sharon and there’s hope that it could change the direction of his career.
    It’s the Relationships Stupid!
  18. Coincidence
    “Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
—Alexander Mackendrick
    There’s a fair amount of coincidence at play in Once Upon a Time:  Rick living next door to Sharon, Cliff picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be a part of the Manson cult, Cliff working on the roof when Charles Manson visits Tate’s house, and the Manson family deciding to kill all the people in Rick’s house instead of Sharon’s, and Cliff’s dog Brandy at Rick’s house at the end. Perhaps the key lesson here is to tell a story where coincidence is used to get your protagonists into trouble, or at least is so embedded in the story that the audience won’t notice.
  19. Stakes
    Potential loss of career/income and life & death. (Though intellectually if Rick cashed in and invested his money wisely and bought a condo in Toluca Lake in 1969 and held on to it and were alive today (and avoided costly divorces) he’d be worth millions today. And professionally he could do the dinner theater thing, an indie film here and there, and guest slots on the Hollywood Squares.)
    What’s at stake?
  20. Let the actors act/ Let the camera roll
    There are several extended scenes where there is no editing. The filmmakers just let the scene (or parts of the scene) play out. This includes Rick and Cliff outside the Musso & Franks Grill, Rick and Cliff driving, Cliff and Bruce Lee interaction (from the start of the scene until Cliff gets knocked down), Rick and Trudi talking, and the Rick and Jim Stacy scene where Rick is forgetting his lines. Along with the great direction, acting, and editing is some tremendous camerawork in those scenes.
  21. Crane shots
    There are two incredible Technocrane (or a Technocrane-like crane) shots in the film. The first is early in the movie when the camera is above Rick as he floats in his pool and then cranes over the trees into the front of the Tate/Polanski house just as they are walking out the door and getting into their little sports car and driving away. And the second is a shot at the end when Rick starts walking up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski home and again cranes over the tress and sits above the drive way and Rick is welcomed by Sharon Tate and her friends. Even on big budget shoots you have to limited your days with specialty equipment. I don’t know if Director of Photography Robert Richardson and his team shot both those in one day, but they could have. The first shot was a dusk and the second was was a night shot. In fact, if the were really ambitious they could have shot the sequence with Cliff on the roof in the late afternoon light (doubling for early morning light) and then grabbed the dusk shot, and then the night shots. They probably didn’t, but they theoretically could have. And if you have a production where you have two or three money shots in one general locations you want to try to bundle them together so you limit your rental days with specialty equipment.
  22. Keep the background interesting
    The truth is the exteriors of movie studios often look like plain warehouses, but in Once Upon a Time they keep it visually interesting. In a scene with Cliff and the stuntman (Kurt Russell) several space aliens walk by in the background. As  Rick walks to the Lancer set a several horses and a wrangler walk pass in the background. As Rick and the 8-year-old Trudi talk during a lunch break on the Lancer set there is a camera on a dolly and lights in the background. The aliens, the horses, and the film equipment add visual interest (and sometime movement) to an otherwise pedestrian background. The same is true for the Spahn Ranch sequence were they utilize dogs, horses, and dust being blow to add a subtle action to background action.
  23. Magical movie moments
    Once Upon a Time has what I consider many magical moments.  Little things that just give a film that little something extra. It’s the sequence when the lights come on wth all the signage, when Pussycat does her little spin before catching a ride with Cliff and later when she jumps on the car at Spahn Ranch and yells “George isn’t blind, you are,” when Rick has his meltdown, and when Cliff makes himself comfortable on the roof revealing his scars and movie star glory.
  24. Music and Sound Design
    There are so many layers to this sound track I could sit in the dark and just listen to this movie—it’s that good. In film school we were taught that you could learn a lot by watching a movie with the sound off. But I’ve never just listened to a whole movie without the picture. But when the Once Upon a Time DVD comes out, I’m going to try that. There is one particular sound cue that I didn’t notice until Tarantino pointed out in an interview. It’s just as Cliff makes his way down the hallway to see George and Squeaky changes the channel on the TV from commercials or whatever TV show to a suspenseful movie we don’t see. The eerie track is a Bernard Herrmann composition for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. But Hitchcock didn’t like the score and not only didn’t use the music, but fired Herrmann. The two never spoke together after that breakup.
  25. Poetic Justice (with a touch of irony)
    The opening scene of Once Upon a Time is an old black and white industry news-style interview that introduces Rick as the star of the Tv show Bounty Law and his stunt double Cliff. In traditional western genre they are the good guys who catch the bad guys—with Cliff doing the dangerous stunt work so Rick doesn’t get hurt.  And at the end of the movie it is the real life of the characters that put an end to the bad guys—again with Cliff doing the dangerous work. Cliff ends up going to the hospital, and Rick gets invited to enter the gates to walk up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski house perhaps on his way to a career boost. Order has been restored in the new west. All it took was an unusual “pool party” with some uninvited guests.

More to come…

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