riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Who Is Responsible for the Death of Sarah Jones?

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

Have you been following the accounts of the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones? If not, read this Hollywood Reporter article, which details for the first time how the incident unfolded using descriptions from other crew members who witnessed it. Warning: reading this article will make you queasy with disgust and anger. It did me. And like many in the film industry and beyond, I keep wondering how in the hell did this happen? And who is responsible? Is it the Director? Producer? Unit Production Manager? Assistant Director? Location Manager? All of the above?

There are two schools of thought on who is ultimately responsible for a film. The first is that the director is responsible because he (or she) is the film version of the Ship Captain, War General, Leader of the Free World, i.e. the person with whom the buck stops. At the beginning of most movies there is title that says, “A (director’s name) Film.” And if a film bombs, usually the director gets the brunt of the blame.

The other school of thought is that the producer is ultimately responsible for a film. After all, it’s the producer who accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture, the producer who finds the money, and the producer who can hire and fire the director, the actors and just about anyone else. If the film is a studio movie, the only one who can fire the producer is the studio. If the film is an independent, most likely, no one can fire the producer.

But a film is the director’s vision. The director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision [Wikipedia]This means once a film is put into production every creative decision comes from the director. He consults with the department heads, but the director has the final creative word.  

Then again, the producer (or studio) has the final financial word.  A Unit Production Manager is usually hired by a film producer or television producer and is responsible for managing the production and regulating the costs of delivering the expected film or television show on budget at the end of principal photography [Wikipedia].

Let’s look at it from another angle. Before that fateful day two weeks ago when the crew of Midnight Rider assembled to shoot a dream sequence, this is what probably happened in the days leading up:

– The location manager scouted more than one train tracks and took pictures of each to show the director.

– The director chose the tracks that run over a 110-year-old bridge over the Altamaha River, in Wayne County, Georgia. At this point, if not before, the location manager would have informed him, “These are live train tracks.” To which, the director probably replied, “I want to shoot there. Figure it out.”

– The location manager attempted to get a location permit for those tracks. The permit was denied (most likely because it’s a live train track).

– The location manager informed the director that the permit was denied.

– The director, in consultation with the producer(s), assistant director and/or cinematographer, decided only those tracks would do and suggested, “Let’s shoot there anyway, guerilla-style.” (According to Hollywood Reporter article, he’s done this before.)

– The producer then approved this decision to shoot on a live train track without a permit.

– The crew was informed the morning of the shoot where they’d be filming that day, and what they should do in event a train came hurtling towards them, i.e. “run for your life.”

On top of that, these additional things DID NOT happen:

– The producer didn’t ask for a schedule of the trains that use those tracks, or calculate how often they come through.

– The producer didn’t inform the train company there would be a film crew on the tracks that day.

– The producer didn’t insist a production assistant was stationed a few miles away to keep a look out for approaching trains (which might have given the crew more than 60 seconds to get out-of-the-way).

– The producer didn’t give the crew a choice of whether or not to participate in this risky scheme.

– The producer didn’t hire a set medic or railway safety personnel (the latter, probably because he knew they had no permit). 

The bottom line is they never should have been there in the first place. The fact that they went ahead anyway and took no extra precautions is what really gets me. It’s unthinkable and unforgivable because it could have been avoided. If only someone had said, “No film or director’s vision is worth putting people’s lives at risk. These are not the only train tracks in Georgia. Let’s shoot somewhere else.” (I know for a fact that every producer I’ve ever worked with would have absolutely said this to me.)

Time will tell who is ultimately held accountable for this tragic fiasco. The director Randall Miller is also listed as producer, along with 11 other producers, co-producers and executive producers. 

Meanwhile, a bright, energetic, hard-working young lady is dead — and for what? 

RIP Sarah Jones.


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Words To Remember: Lights, Camera, Action!

Ironic that today’s Daily Post is about filmmaking. If you were involved in a movie, would you rather be the director, the producer, or the lead performer? (Note: you can’t be the writer!). I actually AM a director, or at least I was. I haven’t directed anything since 2010, which seems like a distant memory.  My last project – a music video – was completed the day before my late husband Kaz discovered he had a brain tumor. Since then, I’ve been writing, but not directing. What’s the difference?

For starters, writing is solitary. Most of us write alone, or rather with the voices in our head to keep us company. Directing is something you must do with others. Like the captain of a ship or a general at war, directing requires not only interacting with real people, but also leading them. It also means “acting” like a director. 

A well-known director once told me, “Directing is at least 75% performance.” Writers usually only have to perform before they write (when they’re pitching), or after they write (when they’re on a press junket for their work), but rarely while they’re actually writing. Directors, on the other hand, are almost always “on,” whether with investors, agents, actors, the crew, producers, studio executives, festival audiences, reporters, and so on. The same director who said directing was performance also once remarked, “How in the world does one do this job without alcohol or drugs?”

Secondly, writing costs nothing. All you need is time, a computer or typewriter, or pen and paper. If you can’t afford a pen and paper, you could write on a free computer at the library and use email to save your work. Or I suppose you could whittle a stick and use blackberry juice as ink like Solomon Northup‘s character in 12 Years a Slave. The point is you can write with absolutely no money.  

You cannot, however, direct a film with no money – even if everything is donated, you’re shooting in your own home and not paying anyone,  money will be spent. There have been cases of people making films with as little as $7,000 (Robert Rodriguez’s first film El Mariachi), but still… that’s $7,000 and a WHOLE LOT of energy to call in all the favors you need to complete the film, favors worth tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars.  As a former professor once said, “The cheapest way to make a movie is to write one.”

Third, the writing process affords flexibility, in the sense that you can change things. Your changes will have ripple effects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them. Directing, on the other hand, requires commitment to the blueprint (i.e. the script) and laser focus to keep all the moving parts together in your head (especially when shooting out-of-order). You can change things here and there, but you can’t veer too far, especially once you’ve started filming. For example, you can’t change the sex of a character, or the tone of a movie, mid-way through production (unless that’s part of the story). You have to be flexible in other ways, but not in the same ways as the writer.

So, directing requires communication, performance, money, focus, and massive amounts of creative, mental and physical energy, none of which I’ve had much of in the past few years. I’ve gone from being a caregiver to a grieving widow, and now find myself in the process of redefining myself, both personally and professionally. I’m not the same person I was before Kaz. I’m not the same person I was when he was alive, or shortly after he died. I’m a combination of all of the above and something more, something new.

I’ve been re-editing my director’s reel over the last few months, and it’s been a great exercise in reflection, like a mirror to my past. Reviewing the films I wrote, directed and obsessed over for long periods. Remembering those moments and projects about which I felt such passion. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been challenging to feel that kind of white-hot passion again. Though I do feel myself slowly being drawn to it, like to a distant fire on the horizon of a very long night.

To answer the original question, if I were involved – when I am involved in a movie again – I will definitely be the director. Even though I haven’t done it in years, I know I still have it. I love telling stories with images and sounds. I love working with actors and other professionals, each department providing its own unique, delicious ingredient to the overall piece. I adore the editing process, which feels most like the writing progress, solitary (save for your editor), flexible, and terribly creative. There’s a reason why so many of us say, “I’ll fix it in post.”

When I get nervous about my hiatus I remember that Stanley Kubrick took 7 years between The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and even longer between the latter and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Terrence Malick took 20 years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998)his second and third films respectively. They certainly didn’t stop being directors just because they weren’t actively directing.  No doubt when they returned to the director’s chair, their life experiences made them better directors.

I look forward to testing that theory. The chair awaits.

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Barry Levy’s 10 Tips for Screenwriters

Besides the occasional celebrity sighting (last week, Kiefer Sutherland), one of the perks of living/working where I do is the access to industry professionals. Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an intimate roundtable discussion with Barry Levy, screenwriter of VANTAGE POINT (2008) and the upcoming PARANOIA (2013). Barry shared some valuable insight on the realities of professional screenwriting.

He began by explaining how he got started in the business, as the assistant to the head of Nelvana, an animation company, and quickly rose through the ranks to development executive. His first scripts, mostly low-budget horror films, were all unsuccessful. The ones he managed to sell were produced direct-to-video, so never made it theaters. His early career included highs like being flown first class to London to meet a prospective director for one of his scripts, and lows like having to sue a producer to get paid for a film. His first nine writing credits totaled less than $21,000.

Frustrated with writing for others, he decided to write for himself, the result being VANTAGE POINT. It sold within 24 hours, the morning after an all night bidding war. Today his 5 year-old daughter goes to kindergarten with – and has professed love for – the son of the producer he sued. Such is the irony of life in Hollywood.

Barry then shared some basic facts that he thinks every aspiring screenwriter should know:

1. Your job is far bigger than just what you write. How you interact with people is a huge factor, and it will catch up to you.

2. You will be alone A LOT, so you better really love to write. Not surprisingly, feature writers are known for having less social skills than television writers.

3. As a screenwriter, nothing is in your control, at times not even what’s on the page. Writing for film is a collaborative experience, and not always for the better. You will receive notes from studio execs, producers, directors, actors, friends and family, and you will have to listen to these people, some more than others. You can also be fired, replaced, rewritten and/or misinterpreted. Your words can be changed on set. You could show up to a movie premiere and literally not recognize the movie that was made based on your script. You have no control.

4. You will struggle with this lack of control for as long as you are a screenwriter.

5. Striking a balance between work and life will help you deal with the lack of control. Kids and/or animals can put things in perspective and help you turn your brain “off” from work. Writing a spec script and/or directing affords you a little more control, but not all writers want to be directors.

6. Whatever you turn in should feel like your final draft. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so put everything you’ve got into making it as good as it can be.

7. Never say “No” to a note, even if it’s the worst note ever. Say “Let me give it some thought.”

8. Be aware of the “math” of writing when approaching agents. The average script by a newbie writer sells for Writer’s Guild (WGA) minimum of approximately $35,000, of which an agent gets 10%. Usually, agents work in teams of 2, sometimes 3, so they’re actually not making that much money on your sale. Don’t take it personally if your calls don’t get returned as fast as the screenwriter who sells for six figures. 

9. Confidence is key. You need to know who you are, define who you are, and own who you are. When considering writers for projects, producers and executives make a list of possible candidates based on their recent work. If you write a horror film, followed by a romantic comedy, followed by a children’s movie, it will only confuse the industry. Don’t try to do, or be, too many things at once.

10. If you’re really serious about screenwriting, you should listen to the weekly free podcast by screenwriters John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Titan A.E., Charlie and Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Superhero Movie, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie).  They give fantastic advice and information on a wide range of topics related to screenwriting, pitching, dealing with agents, producers and more. http://johnaugust.com/podcast or subscribe via iTunes.

I found Barry to be really down-to-earth, funny and endearing. He had no pretensions or romanticized views of Hollywood. He wasn’t bitter. He just told like it is. And even though his advice was somewhat sobering, he managed to give everyone in the room hope.


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The Butler: A Conflicted Review

I’m in Brooklyn at the moment, visiting family and getting a boost of much-needed energy.  I met up with my father and got to drive the Porsche. On Sunday I’m having brunch with freelance journalist, memoir author and fellow blogger, Caitlin Kelly of Broadside. But this post is about none of the above because I just saw Lee Daniel’s movie The Butler.

[photo source: imdb.com]

[photo source: imdb.com]

The Butler is loosely based on the real-life story of long-time White House butler Eugene Allen who served every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. It was directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious, The Paperboy, Shadowboxer, and produced Monster’s Ball, in addition to the aforementioned films. It shows the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of the White House butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son Louis Gaines, who participates in sit-ins, freedom bus rides, marches, the Panther Party and then traditional politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for anything that educates and/or enlightens us on the Civil Rights Movement. But is there anything in this film we haven’t seen before? No, there is not. Is this a new take on the Civil Rights Movement? No, it is not.

The only difference between this film and other films about the Civil Rights Movement is that the main character witnesses it from within the White House. While he’s serving tea, cookies, breakfast and lunch, he overhears his various bosses discuss, argue and make decisions about policies that will affect his and millions of other African Americans’ lives. This is difficult to watch because the entire time he cannot speak or react in any way. In fact, he is instructed to be “invisible.”

And therein lies the rub.  The main character is a passive Black man. His goal in the film is basically to not lose his job, to not rock the boat, to not offend his bosses or do anything even remotely controversial.

If my father had seen this movie, he would have probably walked out. Or he would have been mumbling under his breath the whole time, “This is bullshit,” and we would have been shushing him. I’m not going to judge the main character like my father would. He was a butler and there was dignity in not only his work, but also his role as a father and husband. But I do take issue with the producers. Why was this film made? What did it add to the conversation about race? How many times have we seen the African American experience told from this point of view? It’s similar to always seeing the Jewish experience told from the Holocaust point of view. The victim point of view.

This isn’t to say that the point of view isn’t valid or shouldn’t be expressed. I just don’t know that we need to see yet another rendition of a passive Black male unable or unwilling to do anything to change his genuinely painful situation. And I find it especially frustrating that this was the hero’s point of view. In my opinion, it would have been far more interesting and inspiring to tell this story from the son’s point of view on the front lines of the movement. He was the only active character.

If you think I’m being harsh, check out Harry Lennix‘s take on the film (slightly edited):

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

  “… Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “ni**erfies” it. He “ni**ers” it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well… historical porn. I refused.”

Unlike Harry, I did go further than the first five minutes and I actually do recommend people see the film. Even though I had issues with it, I didn’t totally not enjoy it. It is well-made, has an all-star cast, strong performances and solid direction. Oprah Winfrey’s performance is absolutely delicious and reminds me of what a great actress she is. Also, the father-son relationship and conflict in the film is genuinely compelling.

But when it was over and my 11 year old niece turned to me and asked, “So, did you like it?” I had to pause. “Yes and No,” I told her. Yes… and no. Then we spent the rest of the walk home discussing why.

Have you seen The Butler? What did you think?

Related articles:

www.bellenews.com/search/cecil-gaines-wikipedia/#ixzz2dVrf8bDI

http://www.blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/harry-lennixs-take-on-lee-daniels-the-butler-and-it-aint-pretty


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Juggling and Insomnia

I usually don’t have insomnia, but last night for some reason I woke up around 1:30 A.M. and couldn’t fall back asleep. After a few minutes of staring into space, I got up and went to my home office (formerly the dining room). It was nice actually, everything so quiet.

I made myself some coffee and set out to tie up some loose ends in preparation for the writing marathon that must take place between now and the end of the year, a marathon that will take place mostly on the weekends, but possibly also in the wee hours of the morning.

There I was shuffling papers, cleaning dishes, taking out the trash, responding to blog comments, cleaning up my desktop, when the puppy came out of the bedroom to look at me like,”What the hell are you doing?” Then she turned around and went back to bed. I could have kept going, but I figured I should try and get some sleep before work. I’m on a solid three-week streak of showing up on time.

Keeping a schedule, being organized and on top of things has always been important, never more so than these days. I can’t think straight in a disorderly, chaotic environment, and there is so much to think about right now that I’m literally just trying to keep up.

The memoir is currently out to my mentor and three other people for review. While I wait for their notes, I’m rewriting the pilot I gave my manager earlier this year, and drafting a new one. I want to have two under my belt for staffing season in the spring, a one-hour drama and a half-hour dark comedy, different subjects, different tones.

I’m applying to more residencies and television writing programs, all worthy endeavors but time consuming.

I’m scheduled to revise the script I optioned in March from another writer. If I can manage it, I’d also like to rewrite a couple of my own feature scripts, but that might need to wait until the pilots are further along. My plan is to basically always be writing. When one project is being read/reviewed, I’ll be working on something else.

On top of all that, I’m also trying to “get out more,” as in reconnecting with folks in my field. Social media networking isn’t enough. I need face time with people to rekindle the personal relationship, find out how and what they’re doing, where they’re working, and let them know what I’ve been up to, etc.

I’ve thought about dating too but, frankly, between all the projects, working full-time, taking care of Ruby, and taking care of life, I simply don’t have time.

It feels a bit like a juggling act, or like being in a one-woman band. Balls in the air, balls in my hand, eyes darting from this to that, mind focused, heart pounding but trying to remember to breathe, nerves rattled but trying to appear relaxed, friendly and like this is the easiest thing in the world.

As Diane Keaton used to say in (one of my favorite movies) ANNIE HALL, “La di dah. La di dah.”

Have a great weekend, folks.


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Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week I am reblogging this incredibly generous and informative article written by director Danny Boyle for Moviemaker.com. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Boyle is the director of such films as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. People are sharing this article via Twitter and Facebook (how I learned of it). I’m sharing it here so we can talk amongst ourselves. Please note, everything from hereon comes from Danny Boyle, not me. Enjoy!!

1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

Full article (with pictures) here:
http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/danny-boyle-15-golden-rules-filmmaking/

Happy creating!


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Lessons From ‘THE GODFATHER’

godfather

In this day and age, I think it’s safe to say that most people have either seen or at least heard of the film THE GODFATHER, starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale and Diane Keaton, along with a host of other stellar actors. It was released in 1972, directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the book THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo, and produced by Paramount Pictures, which was being run by Robert Evans at the time.

Everything about this movie is legendary. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay Adaptation (Puzo and Coppola). It was the first “crime family drama” of its kind. Its characters, shooting style, music and dialogue all became part of our national consciousness and filmmaking history. Brando’s performance is still considered one of the best film performances ever, revered, mimicked and parodied the world over.

For those of us in the movie business, or who are film buffs, the making of the film is also legendary. In the biographical documentary THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, Robert Evans talks about some of the epic fights he had with Coppola before, during and after the shoot, and the enormous pressure he was under to make sure the film was a success for the financially ailing studio.

Last weekend, as I was dissecting my book and stitching it back together, I watched the film with the director’s commentary on so I could hear the other side of the story.

Now it’s difficult to imagine, but at the time Coppola wasn’t a famous director. He was an up-and-coming director and only 32 years old. He had a young wife and children. He didn’t get paid much and neither did anyone else on the film, which was made for 6.5 Million. Considering how much it grossed (approximately 133.6 Million domestic, 243.8 Million worldwide (www.boxofficemojo.com), the budget was miniscule.

To save money, Coppola had to get creative. Certain wide shots and long shots were filmed without the real actors, but with extras dressed to look like them, and the actors’ voices dubbed in later. Coppola used his own newborn baby, Sofia Coppola, for the infamous Baptism scene/sequence. He hired other family members to do the music and be extras. When he edited the movie, he lived in the “maid’s room” in James Caan’s 2-bedroom apartment.

The best part of the commentary is when he talks about his fears of getting fired, which were very real and lasted almost the entire time. It’s a strange Hollywood thing, but just because a studio hires you doesn’t mean they support or trust you. Coppola was faced with opposition to practically every decision he made: the actors, the music, the locations, the lighting, the editing… EVERYTHING.

At one point, he was so convinced he was getting the axe, he called Robert Evans’ secretary to ask if he should even go to set. She told him to go because they wouldn’t fire him mid-week (it was Wednesday), but on the weekend. He used the time to re-shoot a scene the studio had complained about, and fire the people on his team whom he considered “the traitors.” A pre-emptive strike, if you will. And it worked. Paramount was flustered and Coppola made it to another week.

There were times when he was so stressed, he didn’t know if he could keep going. There were times when he felt insecure. He remarks that when THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a high octane action-thriller, came out in 1971 (while he was editing) and was a huge hit, he was sure that no one would want to see his dark, slow movie with a whole lot of talking. Of course, now we know that he did keep going. But he overcame all those obstacles without knowing whether the film would do well. He overcame them by believing in himself.

According to Coppola, the moral of the story is that a director should trust his vision and stick to it. If he had caved to the demands of the studio, or his own doubts and fears, the film would have been totally different and most likely not a success. The choices he made were unpopular. He had to defend them tooth and nail. But in the end, those choices are what we remember about the film and why people like me, and many others, still watch and study it thirty years later.

And by the way, the horse head was real. They got it from a dog food company.

Happy creating!

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando


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3 Tips for TV Line Producing

The other day I sat in on an inspirational conversation with the Line Producer of a popular half-hour comedy television show. The Line Producer is the person who “tows the line” of the budget, meaning she makes sure episodes are delivered on time and on budget. I won’t get into everything she said because they’re too specific to television production, but here are a few universal nuggets:

“Coming under budget is a bad thing because it means you’re producing scared.”

When you have a budget and deliver the episode way under, it means you’re not very good at your job. You over-estimated how much things would cost originally (i.e. inflated the budget). Then you committed the cardinal sin of not using all your resources on the screen. The studio wants a great show, a hit show. If you deliver $10,000 over budget you won’t get in trouble. If you deliver $100,000 under budget, you will.

“Line producing is like playing 3-D chess in space with math.”
As a line producer, your job is to protect the showrunner’s vision, protect the studio’s money, and keep your crew happy. You’re the one who signs the checks, so you better be sure you’re responsible for them. You have to be great with numbers, great at solving problems and managing people. You have to be comfortable making big decisions and small decisions. You also have to be willing to use the carrot and the stick.

“To be a good line producer, you must have self esteem.”
No one will believe your words if you don’t. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities. You should be able to go home and sleep well at night, not worry about your work. This isn’t to say things don’t come up. They will. But feel confident in your decisions and know that whatever happens, you know how to fix it. Believe your words.

At the end of the lecture, she mentioned having been inspired by the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.

Here it is:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Happy creating!


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The Love of Cinema

Do you remember your first movie? Mine was STAR WARS. At least, that’s the first movie I remember seeing. I was 6 and 1/2 when it came out in May 1977 and went to see it with my father and brother. Everything about it was awesome and new and I believed all of it, from C-3PO and R2-D2, to the creatures in the bar, to Darth Vader (who scared the shit out of me).

The next year I went to see a very different kind of movie with my mother called THE LAST WALTZ, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on The Band’s final show. It might seem strange to take a 7-year-old to see a film about coked-out musicians but I’m sure my mom was thinking about the music… Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchel, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and countless others. When the lights came up she turned to me and said, “Want to see it again?” I did. We sat through the second showing. Then she bought the soundtrack and played it every weekend for the next 10 years.

In 1979, my older brother and sister snuck me into a screening of ALIEN, which makes me laugh every time I think about it. I’m not sure either knew what it was about when we snuck in. For most of the movie my sister was covering my eyes while squealing beside me, but I could still hear it and I still saw that infamous scene with John Hurt because neither my sister, nor anyone else in the world seeing it for the first time, saw THAT coming. To this day, it’s one of my favorite films.

Around the same time, I became obsessed with musicals. From the Busby Berkeley spectacles, to the fantastical WIZARD OF OZ, to the romantic WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, to the grittier HAIR and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, to the super corny OKLAHOMA, MARY POPPINS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and so on. It didn’t matter what year it was made or the genre. And if Barbara Streisand was in it, forget about it.

As I got older, my mother started taking me to an art-house theater in Philadelphia where we saw foreign films by Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa and Bergman. I remember walking out of a screening of AUTUMN SONATA (about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, played by Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann) saying with a sigh of relief, “I’m so glad we’re not like them.”

I grew to love certain directors, especially Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Milos Forman, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott, Billy Wilder, Terrence Malick and others. Each had his own style. Each brought out the most amazing performances from their actors, music from their composers, editing, production design, costume design…

It wasn’t until college that I considered making a film. That was a task for other, far more glamorous people, who lived very far away in a place called Hollywood. I never thought I’d be living there. Once I learned the basics of the craft I wanted to study film in NYC where my idols Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee worked and lived. But those schools didn’t accept me, so I went to the school that did. I thought film school was heaven. Imagine seeing the epic Sergio Leone film ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST or the beautiful Caroll Ballard film THE BLACK STALLION (both in all their 70mm widescreen glory) for the first time in a pristine theater with only 10 other people… and then talking about them

Cinema has changed over the years. I’m rarely blown away by a film like I used to be when I was young. I admit, I also don’t go to the theater as much. But I’m trying to get in touch with it again, trying to reconnect with that initial thing I loved about movies… to be transported to another world, to be enlightened, to feel compassion for characters I would normally never meet in real life or never love, to feel a togetherness with the other people in the audience, to witness the unique vision of the filmmaker.

I’m trying to remember the difference between cinema and movies, as so eloquently explained by the director Steven Soderbergh‘s in his recent keynote speech at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival:

“The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”
http://m.deadline.com/2013/04/steven-soderbergh-state-of-cinema-address/

Do you like movies? Was there a film that made a big impact on you?


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The Ghost of LA Woman

Yesterday's sunset, corner of Olympic and Arlington Ave

Yesterday’s sunset, corner of Olympic and Wilton Ave

What’s lurking in the drafts section of your dashboard?

I couldn’t resist today’s Daily Post because I only had one draft post, which was just a title: LA Woman. The idea came to me a couple of months ago while driving around, or rather stuck in traffic going nowhere fast, in Los Angeles. I heard the song LA Woman by The Doors in my head and knew I had to write a post about this place.

I first arrived in LA in August 1995, a somewhat innocent 24-year-old, eager to start her first year at graduate film school. I drove here from Philadelphia in a two-door Acura hatchback, my first car, which I had purchased one week before I left, ten days after getting my license.

First impressions of LA: it was beautiful, hot, HUGE, a labyrinth of highways and streets I was sure I would never be able to figure out. On days off I would hop in my car, which had a sunroof, and drive around listening to music, not minding if I got lost (this was before Navigation and GPS so I got lost A LOT), from Hollywood to the Valley to Beverly Hills to Route 1 by the beach. Everything seemed to sparkle and shine. I felt both as if I knew this city, which I had seen umpteen times in movies, and as if I didn’t know it at all and would never truly penetrate its mystery.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I would often go out by myself to explore the bars and clubs. It didn’t take long to figure out the best places to spot celebrities were at the fancy hotels like The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons, The Peninsula. At the former, in the same night, I once saw Dustin Hoffman eating dinner and Barbara Streisand walked by me at the bar. I couldn’t believe it!

Over the years, I would meet many actors, musicians, directors, producers and other film folks at school lectures, various jobs and industry events. The novelty factor gradually wore off, as did the fascination with the nightlife, Beverly Hills, fancy hotels, and so on. The intense loneliness I used to feel in the first few years was replaced by a fluid sense of community, film school friends, colleagues and the few regular non-industry people I know.

When I met Kaz, who was from a D.C., the city came alive in a different way. We used to joke about our mutual love/hate relationship with LA, and love sharing those “I can’t believe I live here” moments. One time he passed Snoop Dogg in the hallway at work, and went to a party where Kobe Bryant showed up in a helicopter. Another time we went to a Passover seder at a famous director’s house with the granddaughter of an American film legend seated beside us. And many more such moments.

Since his passing, I’ve tried to redefine my relationship to the city. How long do I want to live here? Should I go back East and be closer to family? Should I hold out a little longer and see if I can get the career going? LA feels like a combination of high school and metropolis, playground and work center, a series of urban facades and breathtaking natural landscapes. It rarely feels as comfortable to me as the East Coast, but it’s home nonetheless.

These days, my favorite place to hang out is the dog park, usually with natty hair, dressed in my most tattered clothing. For some reason, Ruby loves rubbing her muddy tennis ball on my leg instead of just dropping it at my feet. I’ve even started meeting people there, and the other day I invited a friend to join me even though she’s dog-less. We sat on chairs in the shade and caught up, every now and then pausing to throw the muddy ball to Ruby.

Ah, how things change.

Thanks for encouraging me to finish this post, WordPress!