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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Clemente’

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …1999-2009

While Titanic was the pinnacle of the Hollywood blockbuster there has been a somewhat quiet movement in the film industry which came into prominence in 1999.

While use of video came on the scene in the 1950s it’s claim about the death of film were greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later those claims are starting to resurface.

In 1995 Sony released the Sony VX1000. The first digital video camera that independent filmmakers got excited about. Lars von Trier jumped on the digital bandwagon in directing and shooting the feature film The Idiots with the Sony VX1000 which was shown at Cannes in 1998.

As digital filmmaking became more popular the debate continued over whether this was really filmmaking since film was no longer being used. I remember being at a film festival in the 90s when a New York filmmaker stated that he didn’t make videos, he made film.

Then this little hybrid movie came along in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project that was a game changer. Shot with a mixture of 16mm film and a consumer video camcorder (Hi8 I believe) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale made the film for $35,000. that when on to make in the ballpark of $250 million worldwide. It still has the record for box office income against production costs. (We’ll see if Paranormal Activity beats it. A film inspired by The Blair Witch Project.)

When film historians look at the shift in the film business I think they will look at The Blair Witch Project and 1999 as the most important year for change. The Blair Witch filmmakers were not only from outside L.A. (they met in Orlando), not only found great success making a film shot in part on video, but they used the Internet to market the film in a whole new way.

Because I was living in Orlando at the time I like to point out they the Blair Witch filmmakers pointed out that Ralph Clemente who heads up the film program at Valencia Community College was a great inspiration to them in making a different kind of film. I studied with Clemente when he was teaching at the University of Miami film school and was happy he got a special nod.

The list of films made digitally grew and grew. In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode. Also in 2002 Steven Soderbergh shot the DV feature Full Frontal and Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002).

Another landmark film was released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark— a film that was shot digitally in one take. I saw Russian Ark in one of those grand old theaters in Chicago and I really thought it was a perfect mix of the past and future coming together.

What was different about Russian Ark from the DV features is it was shot on a high end Sony HD camera. The quality difference between DV and 35mm is great when projected on the big screen. And films up to that point used DV for a variety of reasons usually related to budgets. Russian Ark reached new heights by shooting a type of film that not only couldn’t physically be shot on film (due to the nature of film loads being limited in time) but the quality for the average viewer was matched on the screen.

Also in the year 2002, Gary Winick’s  who directed Tadpole (shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera) won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance used to have a policy that said they only took films made on film. No videos allowed. The world was changing.

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”
Gary Winick

In 2003 Peter Hedges (known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) released the DV feature Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes.  It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I love that film and it shows how a story and talent can overcome some technical deficiencies. Hedges pointed out in interviews out that financing had falling through a couple times before when it was budgeted for film so the $150,000 film would not have been made without shooting on DV.

In 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography for the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Also in 2004 at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards. So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

Here’s what I wrote in a post last year called New Cinema Screenwriting:

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences. You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station.

And the standard def DV video cameras have now been replaced by digital High Def cameras that in the right hands can give a wonderful look. The crazy thing is these are cameras in the $5,ooo dollar range. And they are not being used on just low budget features. The Panasonic HVX 200 was used on the $30 million film Cloverfield.

But let’s not forget Paranormal Activity that is purposively meant to look like an amateur video and as of this writing has made over $60 million at the box office.

Yes, this is the point where I bring out the visionary trunk monkey Francis Ford Coppola (the grandfather of the digital filmmaking movement) who had this to say back in 1991:

Coppola was right on track. But can you imagine if he would have said that “some day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a film with her cell phone camera….”—the response might have been, “Yeah, right when we’re flying around like the Jetsons.” Yet, in 2005 a feature was shot using a cell phone. Today there are several cell phone film festivals around the world.

Coppola recently made and released Youth Without Youth shot digitally with the high end Sony F900. The Sony camera (along with the Viper camera) are reaching quality levels that match film resolution. But the biggest talk about the digital filmmaking seems to center around the Red Cameras and we’ll address that in Part 7.

The film verses digital debate is coming to an end.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 7)

Scott W. Smith



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“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

It’s hard to mark the beginning of the modern independent film movement. Certainly one could make the cases for the films of John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, but I mark the year of 1999 as the point when things really changed in the film industry.

That’s when a group of young guys in Orlando, Florida, created The Blair Witch Project. The graduates from the University of Central Florida shot with a mixture of 16mm film and consumer video cameras and made history. It is still the film with the highest ratio of profit to production cost of any film ever made.

One huge reason is that the filmmakers used the Internet to market their concept in a way that Hollywood easily could have afforded to do if they only had the vision. (They weren’t the only ones to miss the early boat. Bill Gates was not a cheerleader of the Internet at the start.) Hollywood caught the vision soon after the success of The Blair Witch Project, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

I moved back to Orlando from L.A. at the end of 1988 just as the marketing campaign for Hollywood East was heating up. Disney and Universal were building production studios and Chapman-Leonard would follow suit.

Britney, Justin and Christina began doing their thing at Disney, and Nickelodeon found a new use for slime at Universal. Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and the building that blew up in the opening of Lethal Weapon III- were all shot in Orlando.

I wrote and directed a national radio drama at Century III (known as C-III) at Universal and received my first paycheck writing from Rick Eldridge who would go on to produce Bobby Jones Story; Stroke of Genius. I once was editing a video project at one of the suites at C-III while David Nutter (who I went to school with at the University of Miami) was editing a Super Boy episode he directed in the edit bay next to me. (Nutter went on to direct a Band of Brothers episode as well as some X-Files and has had quite a career in TV.)

Matchbox Twenty, Creed, and yes, The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were on the Orlando music scene in the 90′s, Shaq was in command for the Orlando Magic, and Tiger Woods moved to town.

It was an exciting time to be in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest underrated event in that era was under most people’s radar. Valencia Community College lured film professor Ralph Clemente away from the University of Miami. (He still runs the film program at VCC that Steven Spielberg said was, “One of the best film schools in the country.”)

I had an editing class with Clemente at Miami and had gotten a good grade in part because I edited a montage of found rodeo footage with a Willie Nelson song. Who knew the German born Clemente whose accent sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s would be a Willie Nelson fan? Clemente enjoyed telling student to try new things.

Years later a couple of students would be inspired by Clemente to make a mockumentary that hit the Sundance Jackpot. Most people forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t even an official entrant. It was a special midnight showing that created the buzz that hasn’t really gone away.

It was as a giant step toward to prophetic words that Francis Ford Coppola said on the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:

“To me the great hope is that now that these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, some–just people who normally wouldnt make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.”


I hope you’ve never been exposed to that quote before. It’s legendary in the micro-budget film world. If I was a fat girl in Ohio who wanted to make films I’d have that quote gold-plated and framed above my iMac.

I don’t know why Coppola picked Ohio as his frame of reference. Maybe he chose it for the same reason I titled this blog Screenwriting from Iowa. Ohio, like Iowa, represents the heartland of America and is more known for farms than film. And since I’m throwing around f-words, Ohio is quintessential flyover country.

But Ohio rocks. In part because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. LeBron James does his magic in Cleveland. The kings of high-flying dreams, Orville and Wilber Wright worked out of a bicycle shop in Dayton. The list goes on. (Did you know that the Wright Brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at one time?)

And Ohio, like Iowa, has some interesting history connected to screenwriting and movie making: Sundance winner American SplendorMajor League, and the classic family film A Christmas Story. At the time of this writing the ever resourceful Internet Movie Date Base (IMDb) lists a tie for the top rated film ever by its voters as Coppola’s The Godfather and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

The later having been shot in Mansfield, Ohio. That site is a character in the film. And you can still take tours there during the summer. (Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio)

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Antioch College in funky Yellow Springs can lay claim to helping to educate Rod Serling before he became an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati before becoming the famous writer & host of The Twilight Zone.

Speaking of Cincinnati, though its influence is probably small, it’s worth nothing that Tom Cruise (who Premiere Mag ranked as the #3 Greatest Movie Star of All Time) attended school briefly in Cincinnati and the highest box office money-making director of all-time (over $3.5 Billion) Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati. (And just to pile on George Clooney was raised just over the river in Kentucky.)

The former reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Joe Eszterhas, has returned to his Ohio roots but not before making his mark in Hollywood where he made as much as four million dollars a script. While no one would accuse the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls with writing regional Midwestern stories that doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas mentions a distinctly Midwestern film he wrote that never got made because he was told, “Dirt don’t sell.” Most of the film F.I.S.T. written by Eszterhas (directed by Norman Jewison and staring Sylvester Stallone) was filmed in Dubuque, Iowa.

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In his book “The Devils Guide to Hollywood,” Eszterhas offers advice to screenwriters such as “Move to the Midwest.” Talk about counter-culture? (And from a guy who once owed homes in Malibu, the San Francisco Bay area, and Hawaii–at the same time.)

Why would he give such advice? “You won’t be able to write real people if you stay in L.A. too long. L.A. has nothing to do with the rest of America. It is a place whose values are shaped by the movie business. It is my contention that it is not just a separate city, or even a separate state, but a separate country located within America. Real people live in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.”

(Perhaps that’s part of the success of Diablo Cody’s Minnesota-based Juno? Maybe she should write a tell all book and call it, Diablo’s Guide to Hollywood.)

But what does Mr. Eszterhas think about what that does for your odds of selling a screenplay? Glad you asked. These are the words every writer outside L.A. wants to hear:

If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”

Joe Eszterhas

Keep in mind Eszterhas is talking about the conventional Hollywood agent route, not the additional opportunities wherever you live by various production people who will be attracted to your script.

While not being fat or from Ohio, Zana Briski took a giant step toward Coppola’s vision when the English photographer picked up a handheld DV camera for the first time and made a film in Calcutta’s red light district. Co-directed and shot with Ross Kauman, Born into Brothels, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Some people have been asking “Where’s that little fat girl in Ohio?” I think he may have meant Iowa. People get those confused a lot, you know?

But wherever she is she’s on her way. Although she may not make her film using her father’s camera-corder as Coppola suggested, but using her cell phone camera and posting it on the Internet.

Rewind back to 1999 when Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC today show, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

As in Des Moines, I-O-W-A. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know? When Couric remarked, “Great, I’m gonna lose my job” (No comment.), ” Spielberg interjected, “We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” (Speaking of the Internet, to see a fun and original five-minute film actually made in Des Moines view Mimes of the Prairie, which won the 2005 National 48 Hour Film Project.

As Morgan Freeman’s famous character Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Cheers to the new Mozarts in Ohio and beyond.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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