Last post of 2009

Next year I’ll be blogging about my next film, THE MAID’S ROOM.  Until then, we’ll always have Michigan…

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The Importance of Movie Stars???

You can spend your whole life waiting for your script to get a movie star attached to it.  Getting it through the agencies takes months and months, even with an agent or a producer with some clout pushing it.   Agents, producers, actors all have different ideas about what is good and bad about a script or a film.  I write my scripts for actors, which is great when an actor finally reads it, but not so great when it’s read by producers or agents who don’t always know how to read a script.

One thing I think most people forget about movie stars is that they can act (most of them, anyway).  They are fucking good at what they do, and they’ve paid their dues, and worked on sets and know their job.  (Most of them, anyway.)

There used to be a school of thinking where a film was truer or more realistic if you made it with no stars.  Remember that line in THE PLAYER, when Richard E. Grant is pitching his script and he says “no stars”, as if the idea of  it makes him sick, and then Dean Stockwell chimes in with Bruce Willis.  And then when Bruce Willis stars in his film, Richard E. Grant couldn’t be more pleased.  He’s sold out.   (See how I remember the actors’ names and not the characters’.)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wouldn’t sell the rights to his books for a long time because the idea of stars playing his characters would ruin the image people had of those characters, because that image would be replaced by the stars that played them.  I’m not sure what happened to that mentality.  I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I love the passion in it; making the decision that your film will not have stars in it because it’s your artistic choice, not because you can’t get CAA to return your phone calls.

Of course, you need a star to get financing for your film.   But then again, you’d be surprised how big a star has to be to get your film financed.  There’s only a few stars out there that are big enough to do that right now, and most of them are over 40.  They are a surprisingly small and shrinking list, as there hasn’t been much of a younger generation to take their place.  So this can’t be the only reason to get a star because, most of the time, you’d be better off making the film for cheap without one.  Even when a star wants to do your film, the scheduling can be a nightmare and the cost is sometimes detrimental to the film.  You would also be surprised at the level of talent that becomes available once you are making your low-budget film and actually have schedule.

Here’s a little from my Manifesto about stars.  Whether it’s worth wasting the years it takes getting to these guys, I still don’t have an answer, and I’ve been wasting a lot of years.

THE IMPORTANCE OF STARS

Anyone interested in a cinema of ideas, needs an actor of power and charisma and gravitas to deliver these ideas.  The fact that an actor is famous is not really the point, but they are generally famous for a reason, which is that they possess the qualities that a filmmaker needs.  This is not always the case.  Stars can be discovered, and there are excellent actors working that don’t make up the A-list, but celluloid is a magical thing and stars have a unique ability to communicate through it in powerful ways.  So it is not a stars popularity that a filmmaker needs, it is their power to communicate and their talent to inspire.

staying in touch with reality

I moved out of LA a long time ago.  I got tired of living in place where people only discussed films in relation to box office success.  In LA, everywhere you go, no matter which party you’re at, they discuss the latest releases and how well they’re doing, with a little bitterness mixed with envy and even pride, that they are in the same business.

I’ve always thought that films should represent life, and that if you live in a world of film, your films become increasingly out of touch.  Nobody in Hollywood wants films about Hollywood, but, in a sense, that’s all they get.  They hunger for writers who come in from outside: a New York cop, maybe, or an ex-con artist with a story from Florida.  But they usually fit it into their vision of the world.  I was at a meeting with a manager in LA and I told him about a story about this guy who wins the lottery.  Because of the circumstances, he can’t cash the ticket so he has someone he knows cash it for him.  The manager asked, why doesn’t this guy steal the ticket?  I didn’t have a good answer because it hadn’t occured to me.  The character doesn’t steal the ticket because that’s the way the character is.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was his own jilted Hollywood idea about life.  Most people I know wouldn’t steal the ticket for the simple reason that it’s a scummy thing to do.  In Hollywood, if you don’t steal the ticket, there’s something wrong with you.

This is an easy target, but I used to love Speilberg films, like most people I grew up with, but as he grew away from his suburban childhood, his films started losing their appeal.  Once he entered into that life of super-mogul/star director, he became that stylistic genius of film who could do anything to tell a story, but had run out of stories to tell.  Eventually, he abandoned his style too.  Did the world change, or did he get older, or did he lose touch with ordinary people somewhere on the flight between his Hamptons estate and his location scouting in Germany?

I moved to Seattle and then New York because I wanted to have a life outside of the film business.  It was also nice to live places where films were discussed in terms of the quality of the film, not just their muscle at the box office.   Most of my friends are not in the film business.  It’s interesting, and sometimes disheartening, to hear what they think about the latest releases, but it gives me a perspective of films that I doubt anyone at the studios has.  It’s disheartening because I wish they were a little more film-savvy and a little more skeptical about a film’s marketing.  They don’t look at the menu of films and get pissed off that film is, and could be, so much more than what they are being offered.  They pick from the menu.

It took me a long time to figure out how to write and make the films that I wanted to make.  Unfortunately for my career, as I’ve gotten better at it, the more Hollywood has distanced itself from those kinds of films.   So now, I’m as out of touch with Hollywood as Hollywood is with the rest of the world.  I know I’m not alone, because most of my friends in the film business who make interesting films are struggling.  We hold on to the idea that there are still people out there who want to see our films; large audiences that are being ignored.  These audiences are being marketed to, but the products leave them feeling empty.  It’s tough maintaining a passion for this stuff, when the world really doesn’t give a shit, but it’s also impossible to watch films get more and more mundane and not feel, passionately, that films could be so much more.  After all, the world doesn’t give a shit about anything until there is something to give a shit about.

More on dark films

As I’ve said before, I love dark films and I doubt I’m alone.  There is a theory, out in the ether of the studios, that no one wants to see dark films, so dark films don’t make money.  Now, I know a lot of people – people I generally like and respect – who won’t go see a film if they think it might upset them.  They go for escapism, I suppose, or uplift, or, if I’m less generous, sentimental crap.   It’s hard not to have contempt for these people and their love of the vacuous.  They watch this shit and then wonder why Sarah Palin gets to be who she is.

There are some genres that are entirely off-limits to these people, and the big one is horror.   Horror is as dark as it gets, and yet, it makes money.  Boatloads of money.   Anyone who likes movies likes a good horror movie because horror people love movies.   Horror movies (the good ones) are cinematically interesting; you can watch them again and again.   And they can be dark and fun.

People forget that it’s fun to scared, or disturbed, or taken somewhere you wouldn’t normally go.   That’s what drama is.  It’s just as fun to watch Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fight it out in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf .  That’s not a happy movie, but it’s a pleasure to watch it.

The Dark Knight was pretty dark and it made a ton of money.  In Titanic, Leo died, and that still made a ton of money.  Precious looks like it’s doing pretty well, and no one’s told me that it has a happy ending.  The thing is that dark films do pretty well.  There are, however, dark films that give the others a bad name.  I call these the miserable films.   These are the ones that revolve around a funeral, or a suicide, where the characters are sincere and humorless.  These films get high praise at Sundance, but no one goes to see them and who can blame them.  On top of being pity-fests, they’re usually not that good.  I mean, who wants to see that actor crying because his life sucks.  It may be a great performance, but it’s not much a story.

I blame these miserable films for doing a lot of damage.  That. and the permanent California sunshine which makes everyone in LA happy and humorless.  Because of this, dark films have a hard time getting made.

(un)interesting movies

I saw JULIE AND JULIA with my mother, which was the perfect way to see it. I thought it was pretty good. I liked the ideas it had of trying to live your life in the shadows of your heroes, giants from history. My wife even bought MY LIFE IN FRANCE, and I picked it up and I’m half way through. It’s a great book if you’re into food, like I am.

I read the review of Julie Powell’s new book, CLEAVING, which apparently is very different from the book based on her blog that the movie was based on. CLEAVING is about Julie Powell’s life since then, in particular her obsessive affair with an abusive guy. The review goes out of its way to say that Hollywood won’t be touching this one.

My question is, why the fuck not?

I’d love to see this book turned into a movie. I hate that Hollywood can’t handle infidelity in an adult way, or sex, or anything interesting. Why not? Why do books get to have all the fun? I’m dying to see the scene where Julie, wishfully Amy Adams again, is tied up and bruised up by her boyfriend, and then has to go home and explain it to her husband. Why can’t a movie be about a woman who gets a little too obsessed with her boyfriend and herself, and hates herself, and is insecure and is maybe even unsympathetic?

Unsympathetic is the word that will sink you in Hollywood, but how do you measure sympathy? Just because a character has an affair, that alone makes them unsympathetic in Hollywood. They are doomed to some sort of payback. Tom Cruise cheats on his perfect wife? Oops, blackmailed. He should have seen that coming!

The sympathy thing is ridiculous, especially as a character is played by a charismatic actor, or even movie star. Julia Roberts could stab a baby with an ice pick and you’d still fall right into those big brown eyes.

The cynical thing about JULIE AND JULIA was that, in the end, the movie became all about Meryl Streep’s performance. It’s a typically great performance, no question, and they sold the movie on that alone, but was that really all this film had to offer? Ask anyone what they thought of the movie and you’ll get the same exact answer every time, “Meryl Streep was fabulous”, as if there were a little press agent in their head reading from his notes.

What a horrible situation American movies are in. The more anodyne the movie, the broader the appeal, the less interesting it is, the more likely it will get made. The more interesting, the less simplistic, the less likely it will get made.

It takes a long time to write a script

Some people say that they wrote their script in two weeks, but this is a bit of a lie. They may have actually sat down and written it in two weeks, but they had been thinking about it, or even making notes or outlining, for many weeks before. Either that, or their script sucks. (Of course by “sucks” I mean that it is bad, not that it did or didn’t make millions of dollars.)

I was listening to the writers of Up talk about the writing of their script. There were a few of them, and Pixar has a unique way of working, but it took them a year to get to the first draft. They took their time. And for them, the writing goes on through production in a way only computer animators can fathom. It took years from their idea.

TV writers are used to working very fast. They generally get a couple weeks to put a script together, so when they move into the movie world, they brag about how fast they can work. But TV is a lot of dialog, a lot of retrenched themes, it’s not as plotted and what plots there are tend to be fairly formulaic, the shows all have their “world” already created so that doesn’t have to be created every time. A film script needs more than that. A film script needs ideas.

I’ve heard many writers talk about how long a script takes to write and it seems the general consensus is between eight months and a year. For a first draft. Once you have that first draft, then you can work quickly on rewrites, depending on the situation. It doesn’t seem to matter if they outline or not, or even if there’s a writing team (although the teams tend to be faster).

The reason it takes a long time to write a film script is that a good script needs a lot of ideas and it takes time to come up with them. The ideas also have to fit into the story. And they all have to be good ideas. A million bad ideas get thrown out along the way, and that takes time.

Imagination takes time.