Monday, April 30, 2007

"You're Going to Need a Bigger Blog"

Man, I hate it when I'm out of the loop. Today, while browsing various blogs with my RSS reader, I come across today's Cinematical post about an early review of the uber-Jaws documentary The Shark is Still Working. At over three hours long, this sounds like a must see. There is no distributor yet, but if that never happens I know I will be buying the DVD. I don't want to just see it, I want to own it.

The film has a great website, and even it's own YouTube channel with exclusive clips. Where the heck have I been? I really like Jaws, bought the DVD the weekend it came out, and still want to get the most recent version which has the uncut Laurent Bouzereau documentary. If I do that, I can't discard the older disc, however, as it alone has the excellent original trailer. This new doc would make an excellent addiction, er addition, to my "virtual" collection.

My earliest memories of this movie weren't in the theater, as I was still a snot-nosed kid in 1975 when it was released. I remembered seeing the opening killing later on HBO and it scared my so bad I had to leave my neighbor's house. That incident prevented me from seeing the movie until I was older and bit braver. When I finally did see the flick, it was so thrilling, scary, funny and smart that it has been a favorite of mine ever since.

It's no secret that this is the film that created Spielberg's career and the term "blockbuster" all at the same time. The first release ever to gross $100 million domestically, it became the model for all other "big" movies to follow. Sadly, it did signal the end of an era of film, which replaced serious filmmaking for artists with the desire to rake in the almighty dollar. The good news was that Jaws was actually a combination of the two. It's a great film on many levels, and I defy anyone to tell me that film is not artistic.

I think the greatest lesson to be learned from Jaws is to never give up. The movie was so rife with problems, that everyone thought they were working on a flop, and Spielberg thought his young career was over. Everyone persisted, and the Shark Film That Could is now a classic, then and now. All filmmakers everywhere could learn from this lesson in sticktuitiveness.

I can't wait to see The Shark is Still Working, and hope that it comes to a theater near me soon. I would love to see the original movie on a big screen as well, but this will be a close second. Here's to swimmin' with bowlegged women...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Blog Salad: Parasites, Rebuttal, and Sucking Shorts

In continuing a new tradition that I find useful and at least one reader likes (right, Nathania?), we continue today with a tossed variety of random stuff related to filmmaking. Take one item or all three, and enjoy the mixture of useful/less information.

Nasty Bugs Make Great Monsters
Here's a wonderfully gross post from Not So Boring Life that should "inspire" some kind of script from the horror lover. "What Everyone Ought to Know About Parasites" is a quick rundown of several of the most common icky bugs that can live inside of humans. There are hook, round, pin, and tapeworms, as well as some gnarly thing called a Schistosoma. Pictures highlight the slimy critters, and if you don't feel a wave of nausea coming, start writing and pen a script that does.

Bill Strikes Back at "Stupid" Indies
A short while back I referred to a recent Variety article about a couple of filmmakers who felt very little love for DVD distributors. Bill Cunningham over at DISContent quotes directly from the article and responds directly to comments made by filmmakers Linda Nelson and Michael Madison. The crux of his retort is that you need to understand the system to make it work for you. I'm still determined to self-distribute, but this is an educational read, and should be perused by those considering this route.

Shorts that Suck Offered Up for Sacrifice
Following a scathing post about short films, the filmmaking blog $1000 Film recently asked for filmmakers to submit their shorts and defy expectations. Several of us have (yes, me too), and these lambs are now listed for all to check out. Reviews are promised, and I am eager to see what someone else thinks of my work. It's also a great way to start a dialogue about movie making, which is good no matter what the reason. Check 'em out!


Rear Window Lite

I’ve often said that there are no new ideas in movies, only new spins on old ideas. This seems to fuel the rabid remake and sequel market, which is pouring out of Hollywood like hot, unstoppable lava. This summer is rife with such material, but first we get Disturbia, a remake of one of my all-time favorite films (if not the all-time favorite), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. This version is for the teen set, and while I was mildly interested at first, the movie totally collapses in the third act, rehashing every horror movie cliché known to man.

Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is having a rough life. First he loses his Dad in a freak car accident, then punches a teacher who makes a joke about it. He is now under house arrest for the summer, and must wear an ankle monitor that keeps him within his property. After his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) turns off his Xbox Live and iTunes accounts, he has nothing to do but stare out the windows at his neighbors. This is at first pleasing when he spots sexy newcomer Ashley (Sarah Roemer), but things get dicey when he suspects creepy Mr. Turner (David Morse) of murder and sets out to prove it.

I had some high hopes for this movie. The co-screenwriter is Carl Ellsworth who penned one of my favorite movies of 2005, Red Eye. That film was not very original, either, but was efficient and effective. Maybe, I thought, he could re-invent a classic for a younger audience and entertain older ones as well. Boy, was I wrong.

The setup of Disturbia actually works fairly well. LaBeouf (The Greatest Game Ever Played) makes a likeable hero, and Roemer (The Grudge 2) is a worthy attraction for him. Goofy friend Aaron Yoo provides comic relief and Morse (16 Blocks) is good at being menacing. There is good character development intermixed with humor, added with the obvious voyeurism and paranoia. At this point we’re still not sure what’s fact and fiction so the audience is as off balance as Kale. It’s a classic movie mix, and while I wasn’t loving it, I wasn’t bored, either.

Then the third act hits. Anything that was working before is ditched for cheap scares, an omniscient killer (who does something very stupid at the service of the screenplay), and a hero who blunders into all kinds of incriminating evidence (while the killer watches! What?). Any previous suspense created quickly disappears after a ridiculous turn of events. I realize this isn’t exactly new material, but neither was Red Eye. That movie followed through with what it started, this one just implodes.

If you haven’t seen Rear Window or any horror films, you may enjoy Disturbia. Otherwise, prepare to be somewhat entertained then completely let down by this very predictable thriller.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Write your Screenplay from the Inside Out

In pondering what to write about for my $1000 movie, I harken back to the days of low budget master Roger Corman. Here was a guy who could squeeze blood from a stone, reusing locations (and often footage) for different movies and was even known to start tearing pages from the script if the director was behind. He used only one take per shot, and was bet that he couldn't shoot a feature in two days--and he won! The film was the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

Obviously inspired by Corman, the micro-budget rule is to assess what you have access to and write your script around it. If you can get into a gothic house, shoot a horror movie. If you have cops in the family, make something with an arrest scene. This is what I call writing from the "outside in", where resources determine your story and screenplay.

I can see the wisdom in this (especially if you budget is extremely low or nonexistent), but feel that it's inherently flawed from the creative level. When you set your parameters on a story based on tangible things, you are immediately shackling yourself and limiting your imagination. You should be writing about what can be done, not what should be done.

What I prefer is to write whatever story I like, then adapt to get it shot. I had no idea where I was going to find a paved road near a wooded area when I wrote Middle of Nowhere. I just penned a story that inspired me, then found the location later. Had I thought "I don't have that location in my current quiver", I never would have written or made that film, which would have been very sad for me.

I say don't worry about anything when writing, just write and get your script done. Logic will dictate that you don't write a period piece, or something with epic battle scenes, but put the story in a contemporary setting and make the battle between two people and it's doable. It will test your problem solving ability as a director to get the script to screen, but that's the director's job. The writer's job is to write and write well.

There is always an answer to a problem posed by the script, and it doesn't have to involve spending money. Your creativity and fortitude will be tested as you come up with solutions to "impossible" problems, and you will grow and develop as a filmmaker. Aiming high and missing is always better than aiming low and hitting. You may even surprise yourself and hit that lofty target, which wasn't on a list of any kind.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Roger Ebert Recovering, Vows to Attend Fest

After a long absence from his TV show Ebert & Roeper and infrequent articles on his review site, film critic Roger Ebert has given the world an update on his condition. Along with a startling current photo of himself, the world-famous critic comes clean about exactly what surgery he's undergone and his current condition. It's a tribute to his frankness in the face of illness, but also a shock to fans who have not seen him for awhile.

He states that after salivary gland cancer moved into his lower right jaw, a portion of his mandible had to be removed. Two attempted surgeries to reconstruct the missing piece were unsuccessful. Another result was a tracheostomy, which has left him without a voice. Doctors are now working on an alternate plan that should restore his speech.

Despite his newfound handicaps and drastically different appearance, he promises to attend his "Overlooked Film Festival" that he has held for the past eight years. Despite advice that he should avoid subjecting himself to getting photographed by the tabloid press, he responds with a movie quote: 'I don't give a damn.'

I have to admire Ebert for his tenacity. He could easily hide in the shadows to mask his completely changed appearance. Not him. He puts a picture of himself on the internet for the world to see. And while his thumb is up, I also picture him giving the bird to everyone who told him to not to do it.

My basis for film reviewing (and later making) was formed by watching the original Sneak Previews on PBS, then At the Movies, then Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. Along with the late Gene Siskel, Gene and Roger (often referred to as "the bald one" and "the fat one") were the first recognizable national film critics. Their trademark "Thumbs Up" is still quoted by studio ads looking to sell their film to the public.

As a kid, I started watching just for the movie clips, but over time started listening to what these two guys had to say. They certainly knew their flicks, and often got into heated discussions about their varied opinions. I mostly agreed with Ebert who like sci-fi much more than Siskel, and even bought several of his review compilations (which are moot now as all reviews on archived on his website).

I still watch the show (Ebert & Roeper), but have to admit the edge went with Gene's passing, and Ebert himself seems to have softened quite a bit. Still, I will always acknowledge his influence on me as a writer/filmmaker and wish him the best of luck and a quick recovery.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Getting your Hooks into the Viewer

The rule of thumb is that you decide whether or not you like a film within the first ten minutes of the running time. This must be the reason for the screenplay "hook" which is supposed to grab the viewer and keep them watching. A classic example of this is the opening sequence of most Bond films. It's always an elaborately staged action sequence that typically has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It's an attention-getter that says "what comes next is just as good!".

The sad truth is that many movies have great hooks, but few deliver what they promise. I can't count the number of movies that hook you then follow with a good setup only to sag in the middle, and fall apart in the end. Good ideas are aplenty, but fleshing them out to a feature length is tough, especially if your are writing your first full-length script (like me).

My favorite movie hook is probably the opening sequence from The Matrix (1999). While it is a wonderful and thrilling action setpiece, it is more than just screen viscera. It creates all kinds of questions in the watcher (How did that girl run up the wall? And disappear into the phone? And who are those "men in black" types?) then spends the rest of the film answering them. This is what we all want: to create a void in the audience that will keep them interested in how everything pans out.

I hear action producer Joel Silver demands an action sequence (or hook) every eleven minutes. This is not a bad idea in any movie. It doesn't have to be action, but the more hooks you can put out, the more interest will remain. A police taser is a submission weapon that shoots two wired barbs into a human target followed by an electric charge. As long as those barbs remain attached, the officer can continue to deliver the shock. So it should be with our script. Keep pressing that button and you will keep eyeballs on the screen.

What these hooks are, of course, will depend on your story. Comedies will have much different hooks than a horror film or western. It's up to you to know your characters and plot to implement bits that intrigue and perplex. Just don't back off when the barbs go in. Keep pressing the button all the way until the final credits roll.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Economy of the Shorter Screenplay

After reading a very enlightening post from the guys at $1000 Film called "Short Films Suck", I've got new motivation to make a feature. I'm not as militant about avoiding the short form (hey, I have made a few), but do admit that if the goal is make features, then that is what you should be doing. On the financial side, there is no money in short films, where features can open a lot of doors, and even a few wallets. I'm even starting to believe the $1000 Film ethic, which could really maximize profits in the long run.

The first step toward creating a film of this budgetary ilk, is crafting an appropriate screenplay. When I say "appropriate", I'm not speaking of content as much as doable material. If you really allot yourself a meager sum as a budget (and refuse to go over it), you need to think ahead. Planning will be your greatest ally, and the first step of your plan is the simplest.

Time is money, and if you only have a little money, give yourself little time. The minimum length of a feature generally falls within the 75-80 minute range, so that should be your target. I don't care what it's about, but don't write more than 80 pages. If you do, removes scenes, combine several characters into one, change whatever you have to, but stick to 80 pages. More pages will just make everything about your production longer and more expensive, which you don't need.

After learning that the recent horror-thriller Vacancy timed in at a scant 80 minutes, it made me reflect on other "big" films that succeed given the short running time. Less seems to be more, and we can all learn from the big boys. The following are some examples I can think of. They all run over 80 minutes, but cut off the credits and you get a script with 80 or fewer pages.

Red Eye (2005) 85 minutes
This cool little thriller had a tense script that focused on two characters sitting on a plane next to each other. Rachel McAdams is threatened by killer Cillian Murphy that unless she puts a government official in a specific room of a hotel she runs, her dad will be offed. The first act is all character setup as the two banter on the plane. When the plot fully engages, we care a lot about McAdams, and despise Murphy. Seasoned director Wes Craven does a lot with this material for a great ride.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, last scene takes place in a house.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Airports and the inside of an airliner (including lavatory) and fancy hotel are prominent locations.

Run Lola Run (1998) 81 minutes
This gem from German director Tom Tykwer is one of my favorite films. It centers around red-maned Lola (Franke Potente) and her dumb boyfriend, Manni. He's lost a bunch of money he's supposed to deliver to the mob, and will be killed unless Lola helps him somehow. Lola gets three chances to make things right, as the story spins back on itself giving her multiple chances to change fate. A very fun film with a charismatic star and wonderful techno soundtrack.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, same-story loop allows reuse of footage.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Lola runs all over Berlin, a casino and bank full of extras are used, firearms featured.

El Mariachi (1992) 84 minutes
Robert Rodriguez' first feature is still his best. Shot for a mere $7000 on 16mm film then bought by Columbia, El Mariachi is full of low-budget goodness. The story involves our hero being mistaken for a killer with a guitar case full of weapons. A wealth of info can be learned from the DVD commentary, as well as the "10 minute film school" (which Rodriguez includes on all of his DVDs). Also read the associated production journal Rebel without a Crew for even more inside stuff.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, only one take allowed per shot.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Stuntwork, firearms, blood.

I'm just touching on each of these films, but you get the idea. Learn from what has gone before, and don't repeat someone else's mistakes. They will just cost you more money, anyway. If you can think of any more mainstream releases with short running times, please post them (and what you learned) in the comment area for all to see. Thanks!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Scene Gems: Jim Carrey Takes Wife on Wild Ride in 'The Truman Show'

Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998) is a prophetic film, detailing what it would be like if a reality show covertly televised the entire life of one person. That one person is Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who has lived in the "perfect" (read: fake) community of Seahaven his whole life. After some technical lapses in the production, Truman starts to suspect some sort of conspiracy.

While this movie is about Truman and his Show, it also works well on an allegorical level. The "creator" of the show is the god-like (and named) Christof (Ed Harris), who feels that he is the best parent Truman could ever have. Like all children who long to be free, Truman sets out to break the spatial chains that confine him on his island prison. The end of the movie is very poetic, inspirational, and clever.

That's not to say there is no comedy. In this scene, Carrey demonstrates to "wife" Laura Linney some things that are a bit weird in their neighborhood. Carrey's expressions and delivery are priceless, but don't discount Linney. She is every bit as good as an actress under duress ("I can't work under these conditions!").

I also like Weir's method of shooting, a lot of which looks like the POV of a hidden camera. Making the vignetting of the lens obvious, as well as rapid attempts to find the shot (much like a live TV production) help cement the illusion. Weir doesn't use this technique exclusively, but melds it with traditional angles for a more balanced attack.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

DVD Packaging on the Cheap

Okay, so you've made your killer app of a movie, authored a DVD and you're ready to sell it, or just give it way to friends. What is the most economical way to do this? You want to put out something that looks good, but doesn't cost much (we all want to do a lot with a little, right?), so what's the best setup that will be the best for cost-to-profit?

After doing a little DVD work on the side, a simple yet elegant product consists of three elements: a printable DVD, a clear, standard-sized DVD case, and (if you want to ship it) a mailer.

One of the best ways to make your disc look professional is to print a nice graphic directly to it. This can be done with any number of inkjet printers (I use an Epson R200) that come with a CD/DVD tray allowing you to slide your disc inside of the beastie, which then prints right on it as if it were paper. The cons of this process (which may make you consider outsourcing if you have a large number) are that you can only print one at a time, and it takes a very slow 2-3 minutes.

Inkjets are notorious ink hogs, so care must be taken to keep your costs low. Ink cartridges aren't cheap, so dedicating a printer specifically for this purpose is a good idea. You can also drop your printing level down a notch, which will print your label slightly lighter, but give you more ink in the long run. If you're really enterprising, you can ditch the carts all together and go with a continuous ink system, which pumps the ink from external bottles. I use the cartridges on the lighter setting and labels cost me about .25 each.

Next you'll need inkjet printable DVDs, and I like the ProDisc brand from Meritline. They are reliable, and you can print all the way to the hole on the "hub printable" versions. The 8x model can be had for .24 if you buy a lot, or .26 if you don't. I like the white surface, but you can also get cool shiny surfaces for that futuristic look.

While there are a lot of different DVD cases, I prefer a clear, standard-size box. There are cheaper alternatives (like clamshells), but none will fit into a DVD rack, which means they are destined to get lost. A clear box will fit in anyone's rack, and since you can see through it to the label, it removes the need for box artwork, saving you some more dimes. These run about .24-.28 depending on how many you buy.

If you need to mail your masterpiece, a plain mailer works very well. This foldable box runs about .17 to .24 based on number purchased (although Meritline was out of stock as of this writing), while shipping will set you back a little over one dollar.

So there you go. If you do all the work yourself, your total cost of materials and mailing should just be a hair over two bucks. Charge $10-15 as your price and you don't have to sell too many units to make it all worth your while. And that's the dream, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

DIY Distribution Week Continues!

Building upon a theme that keeps continuing for some reason, some more stuff has come to light about self distribution that I feel compelled to pass along. We all have to potential to make good movies (and lots have), but the road to obscurity is littered with them, and you have to make people aware of your work to get them to buy it. It's basic supply and demand.

A Big Movie for Free
Variety is reporting that director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) is planning to make an environmentally themed film called Boomerang. The real news is that he's stealing my idea and releasing it for free distribution. The caveat is the free part comes after costs plus 10% have been recouped. I'm not sure how this will work, but it's interesting to see a big filmmaker moving in this direction.

Distribution Hell
The latest issue of Microfilmmaker magazine has a great article by Mike Flanagan called Self Distribution: Abandon All Hope??? He reiterates what I've been blogging about this week (distributor woes, CustomFlix) as well as adding some very valuable personal experiences. I really like his statement of "if you can secure a nice distribution deal for your indie film, my hat's off to you. But most of us won't." Harsh, but true. Make sure you read all of it.

Creative Commons and the Art of Free
I also took time to re-listen to the interview of Cory Doctorow by Lance Weiler and The Workbook Project. The information given by author Doctorow is really profound, and it's starting to become distribution doctrine for me. This time I picked up the morsel about when you sell your digital file (of your music, movie, book, whatever) don't copy protect it, and make it a format that people can do something with. If people want your thing, they will want it in some kind of universal format, otherwise they'll go to an illegal source where they can get it that way. Wouldn't you rather have them coming to you?

Starting with a business plan before you write one word or shoot one frame is a good idea if you plan to be a filmmaker that makes money. I know that I have yet to implement these plans, but come along with me (or do it yourself) and see how things turn out. The movie world is on the cusp of big changes, and I hope we all can get a nice piece of that yummy pie. And hopefully not worry about paying the rent when we are done.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The New Movie Industry

On Sunday, the band The Cobra Punchers posted a pretty compelling blog post entitled "The New Music Industry". This article covers some very interesting points about what is wrong with the music biz, as well as bands that perpetuate a broken system by jumping on (or spending all their time trying to get on) a sinking ship. The Punchers speculate that the problem won't go away until artists basic attitudes change, most notably their feelings on giving their music away online.

The article continues with this bold statement: do not sign to a large record label. Apparently most bands don't read the fine print of their contracts and end up getting screwed by the very entity that was supposed to give them fame and fortune.

Does this sound familiar? Just yesterday I linked to an article in Variety that mentioned filmmakers getting "offers" from DVD distributors that offer nothing. Producers looking for a return on their investment only give their work away to conniving scum who are the only ones making the money. The medium may be different, but it's the same ol' song. The major disadvantage to avoiding a distributor is that it cuts you out of Netflix, which requires one.

The Cobra Punchers offer some solid advice for musicians that all us filmmakers could learn from. This is even more incentive for indie distribution, and a real eye-opener for those unaware of the predatory nature of those who want to cash in on your blood and sweat. Don't let them do it under the pretense of easy money. There's no such thing.

So how do we make money? Recapping some of my previous posts, interwoven with some recent ideas, here it is in a nutshell:

1. Make a quality movie for as little as possible (I'm guessing a max of $5,000 should do it, but less is more).
2. Create a website promoting your film, and offer your DVD for sale there.
3. Put the entire movie on Google Video (which is the lowest quality version) for anyone to see, including an ad at the beginning for details on where the viewer can buy the DVD. The incentive to buy the disc is much better audio/video and lots of bonus stuff.
4. Send out free screeners to busy movie websites and blogs, and have them mention the free version on Google.
5. Put a download to rent/own version on Amazon Unbox's CustomFlix, which splits the profits 50/50 with the filmmaker. The download to own should be priced less than the DVD, which offers more content and quality.

CustomFlix also offers a DVD duplicating service, but I say don't use it. They want way too much money to provide a service you could get much cheaper locally. You'll have to ship copies yourself, but it's more money in your pocket where it belongs.

Don't forget to promote the hell out of your project. Get as many eyeballs as you can to that free version (and encourage others to link to it), and the ad should inform them of everything else they can get from you. I really believe this method could add up to a yearly salary and replace your "normal" job. Now I just need a really good script to start on Step 1...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Distribute Your Movies Online, While Cutting Out the Middleman

On Friday, Variety's Anne Thompson published a piece (thank you, CinemaTech) about indies getting their work out there via Amazon's Unbox download service. I first reported this was going to happen back in February, when Amazon announced a deal they struck with TiVo to allow their downloaded content to be viewed on the popular DVR. This is a great step in the right direction, as no one wants to watch movies on their computer, but from the couch, and these two powers teaming up is a good thing.

The Variety article highlights CustomFlix, a service allowing anyone to make their movie available for rental and/or purchase, splitting the profits with the filmmaker. Shifted is the first movie doing this and is making money, even if the total cut is only around $1,000. Not nearly enough to quit a day job. Especially since the budget of Shifted is stated as being $100,000 (which they apparently didn't spend on audio).

I think for this to really work for anyone two things have to be in place: a very small budget, and a lot of PR. I realize how hard it is to make a movie with little money, but it can be done if you're resourceful. Roger Corman made a career out of fast filmmaking (he often only had one take per shot, and often reused footage and locations), which he quickly turned over in the drive-in circuit, and later direct-to-video outlets. He always made money.

Good reviews will get you good word of mouth, which will get you more downloads and purchases. Bad word of mouth will kill you. I realize this is common sense, but the lure of "easy" money can cloud a filmmaker's judgement, so they crank out crap just to get it online. In this respect, don't emulate Corman. Make quality because reviews will matter to you and your bottom line. Either type of press can spread like wildfire on the web, so let this work for you and not against you.

Secondly, people are going to have to know about your movie, and you have to create a desire in them to WANT to see it. CustomFlix gives you a page to promote your movie, and Shifted gets this right. There is a trailer, pull quotes from good reviews, links to good reviews, and a list of festivals it has been to. Get the word out (send screeners to every website/blog that fits your genre) and create buzz for your movie. This topic in itself could be a series of articles, but it must be done if you want to succeed.

Thompson points out that the "magic moment" of successful indie distribution is very close, and I agree. While my model is a bit different, I can see the potential of Unbox and CustomFlix. People just have to know about it to want to see it, and make sure what they see is worth seeing again.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Scene Gems: Understated Seduction Attempt in 'The Spanish Prisoner'

Here's a real curiosity that has become one of my favorite films. David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner is a modern noir with a lot of familiar elements. There's the flawed hero wrongly accused, the femme fatale, and the guy who appears to be a friend, but is actually much worse. Macguffins also abound.

This film seems to occupy a strange place in a strange land. If you are familiar with Mamet (Spartan), you will recognize his repetitive and rhythmic style of writing. The otherworldly way people talk here puts the movie in a parallel world that looks normal, but feels somewhere else. What you won't recognize is the zero profanity count in this film--something none of his other films can claim.

I also like how low-key the entire film is. This scene is a perfect example of this. Office temp Susan (Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon) has taken a liking to good guy Joe (Campbell Scott). Here she displays her intentions both with her words and body language. Since this is a noir, nothing can be taken at face value (note the timing of the phone call), and this entire film is about misdirection. Also notice the use of dissolves and shot lingering that creates a slower, more deliberate pace.

Mamet's camerawork uses depth well, and this scene is a great example of framing (Susan is literally inside a frame at one point) and the use of the close up in contrast to the wide shot. When things are more personal the camera gets closer, when Joe loses interest, things widen out. Simple techniques like these can really have an impact. This film has a lot of that, sleepy as it may appear.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hey Buddy, Got Five Seconds?

Wow. In a previous post I mentioned how impressed I was when I found a YouTube user who was making sixty second mashups (or short trailers) of popular movies. Now I stumble across another ADHD afflicted dude who is doing the very same thing only he's boiled his selections down to their most basic core elements, which last only FIVE seconds.

He's put together an impressive list, and they're very funny to watch. Of course, it helps if you have seen the film he's compressing, but his flair for the quick wit and fast editing is quite chuckle-inducing. These might be my new favorite viral videos (which should easily be added upon on a regular basis), beating out The Easter Bunny Hates You, which I've always had a lot of affection for.

I wonder if entertainment of the future is moving in this direction. With the miniaturization of viewing screens (the iPod), and short movies such as these, could literal micro cinema be the next big, uh, little thing? Maybe movies of the future will simply be downloaded into our brain (NeuroFlix?) as a memory so we won't even have to go to theater or local video chain. What a sad day that would be.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

CinemATTIC and the Top Ten Cheesiest Movie Moments

As the title indicates, the movie blog CinemATTIC has posted another humorous top ten, this time chronicling film moments labeled "cheesy". Lists like these are always fun, and any movie buff can appreciate others who recognize the times they rolled their eyes in the theater, then over and over when watching cable.

I noticed that the earliest film listed here is 1982 (An Officer and a Gentleman), which had me wondering. Surely there were a ton of cheesy moments before that flick that have just gone unnoticed by this particular blogger. Our movie experiences seem most concentrated on those that were made after we first started attending the cineplex, which leaves much cheese unexplored. Shameful moments like these are not exclusive to the 80s and later.

Another commonality of this list is that these are all huge mainstream releases (with the exception of Four Weddings, an import), that did well at the box office. I suppose it would be silly to list films most of us hadn't heard of, and who would seek out an obscure film just to witness an embarrassing moment within it?

I guess my point of this diatribe is that I wonder how these would rank if you (I'll make this easy) had seen every popular film in the Hollywood catalog? Would Jimmy Cagney have an entry? How about Vivian Leigh? Charlie Chaplin? It does encourage me to watch older stuff which I definitely champion, but also admit that the bulk of the movies I've seen were made in my generation.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blog Salad: Or What to Write About When You Have No Cohesive Line of Thought

Yep, it's already been one of those days. My wireless router decided to do something other than wireless route, and I had to spend way to much time to get it to work again. Of course, an Internet connection is pretty useless when you don't really have anything to write about anyway. I usually have a folder that I'll drop related items in that I can write about later. There is stuff in that folder, but it really has no connecting theme (other than filmmaking). So here is some stuff that is useful but not really organized:

Reality Show Editing Tips
Here is a great clip from a BBC show about how the art of cutting can really make a difference in the mood conveyed. An excellent primer on how important this seemingly invisible craft can work for you.

Making Killer Shots for Movies, Too!
Here another instructional about composing a shot for still photography. Like a lot of things that apply to one kind of camera, they can be adapted for another kind. Taking a course in this kind of thing can never hurt your cinematography skills, and we all know that you not only direct your stuff, but most likely shoot it as well. Right?

Write That Script!
Your screenplay is the foundation which your movie is built upon, so it should be solid. A great (and almost daily) diatribe goes on about writing at $1000 Film. The genesis of this blog was to detail how to create a Hollywood-quality movie for no more that $1000 (I guess to cover only food), but it has since turned it's focus a bit. Now the topic seems to be creating a very good script (which is a good idea no matter what the budget), and there is a lot of good information here about plot, structure, and character development. Always worth reading.

Hopefully tomorrow I can be back on track to giving some more focused material, but today, enjoy the salad.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Apparently I’m Not the Only One Who Didn’t Want to See ‘Grindhouse’

It was a decent weekend for two movie luminaries that audiences have grown to love. Nope, I’m not talking about directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, but Will Ferrell and Jon Heder. The skating comedy Blades of Glory topped the box office again with a $23 million take. The much ballyhooed double-feature homage to 70’s exploitation, Grindhouse, took in a paltry $12 million to place fourth over the holiday weekend.

I’ll admit that while perplexed, I really didn’t want to see Grindhouse. I like the idea of resurrecting the double-bill, and movie tributes from any era can be fun, if not very popular (remember The Good German?). In between the two features are a block of faux trailers for similar trashy fare. The most praised (and available on the web) of these is Thanksgiving from Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel). Obviously “inspired” by early-80’s slasher flicks, this very graphic trailer is pretty sick and wrong. Seeing this thing alone made me glad that I chose to miss Bob and Quent’s three hour plus opus to garbage.

This may also explain the low numbers. Since Grindhouse was not only beat by one but three family-friendly comedies (the other two being Are We Done Yet? and Meet the Robinsons), logic would dicate that mainstream audiences don’t want such lurid stuff. In the glory days of the grindhouse theater this would have been okay since these films were very low budget and almost always made money (See Roger Corman’s book How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime). This film has one big star and cost something between $55-$65 million, which it will apparently struggle to make back (along with ad costs, distribution, etc.). Grindhouse 2 seems very unlikely at this point.

This movie feels like a vanity project for the two directors, who made a film on clout that had no real demand. According to most reviews they deliver on exploitation promises, which will make this a love-it-or-hate-it experience. If this is your cup of dirty tea, you’ll probably eat it up. If you are more sensitive and claim to have a moral compass, it will most assuredly offend you.

Flying in the face of film snobbery everywhere, I’m a film geek in the latter category.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Scene Gems: Ralphie Beats the Bloody Snot Out of a Bully in 'A Christmas Story'

I realize this isn't the Christmas season, but director Bob Clark and his son were tragically killed by a drunk driver two days ago. He had an eclectic resume, directing this holiday classic, pretty seedy fare (Porky's, Black Christmas), and downright dreadful stuff (Rhinestone, Baby Geniuses). He wasn't a great filmmaker, but he definitely had his moments, and it's always sad to see an artist with passion pass from this world, never to make another film.

A Christmas Story (1983) is the tale of an everyday kid in the 50's who dreams of one thing: getting a BB gun for Christmas. His plans seem constantly thwarted by adults (even Santa) who keep telling him "you'll shoot your eye out". He presses forward undeterred, and we get a great slice of life comedy about a boy and his whacked family. The adult voice over here was also a first, later made popular by shows such as The Wonder Years (1988-93).

There are a ton of great scenes to choose from here, but every kid ever terrorized by a bully will immediately identify with this one. The wonderfully named Scut Farkus (Zack Carver) has been giving Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) a real bad time and here he gets his comeuppance. I really like how this scene plays out from the comedic beginning, to the completly real reaction Ralphie has at the end. Notice that the bully gets bloodied in the ordeal (something Ralphie never got), and how the tone swings from funny to melancholy.

We'll miss you, Bob.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Are Old Movies Boring?

When talking about films with my co-workers (a common topic), the subject turned to older black-and-white movies. I can’t remember what film I was discussing, but a newer guy who appeared not to be paying attention pipes up with “old movies are boring.” I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and my fingernails grew slightly. What heresy dare he speak?

I get this a lot actually, from people who haven’t seen any movie that preceded their tenth birthday when they saw a movie for the first time in the theater. They grew up with MTV firmly in place in our culture, which has spewed forth many directors who brought their obnoxious “style” of fast cutting and hyperactive camera work from the small screen to the big. A slow brewing plot and developed characters seem wasteful to many, with much emphasis on the slick production values taking a front seat. It’s Fast Food Film.

Does that mean that older fare is only good for movie-making film geeks like me? What purpose can classics serve for a mainstream audience? And how can you encourage those not interested to view said classics?

I don’t believe that any classic movie is only for those of that era or for those marooned in a film class. These films are what developed our cinematic language that we use today, and serves as the bedrock for what we have now. It’s a real eye-opener to watch a movie that did something for the first time (Rear Window) and see the exact same themes and plot in a current film (Disturbia), which is essentially a ripoff. That doesn’t mean the new version is bad, just not original. I’d hope people would seek out the original inspiration, where they might discover that the source of the idea tends to be a better product.

The main point is that older, classic movies are just good movies. They work. They are successful in conveying whatever experience they are supposed to. You may not like them all (I don’t), but don’t write them off as obsolete and old fashioned, because you’ll be missing out on some fine entertainment. You don’t have to be a film scholar to appreciate the witty dialogue of Billy Wilder or the suspense created by Alfred Hitchcock. These guys made films for the masses, and the masses can still enjoy them.

A group of friends and I used to have a monthly movie club, which I really miss. We all put in about ten suggestions of films we really enjoyed, then would draw one from that person’s list on their day. It was great to come across a movie you may have heard of but would never see otherwise. It was a way to open your mind to unseen treasures. I learned to appreciate foreign films this way, and was able to share movies dear to me as well.

A good place to start is AFI’s Top 100 Films of All Time. Granted, these are all American movies, but it’s a good list of quality material. Please don’t discount great movies just because they’re from another era or don’t use a full-color palette. Just like a old song or painting can be a beautiful thing that inspires and/or affects, so can a motion picture from days gone by. I dare you to try one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Tool Time: Handy Production Stuff You Must Get

Roll 'em!
Sometimes it's just very handy to have a generic set of tools at your disposal. You never know when you'll need to repair a set, build a prop or fix your car right there on location. I like Bucket Boss' Duckwear Tool Roll which gives you the basics and rolls up into a handy bundle that can be tossed into an car trunk, crate, or backpack. It's also a good deal at $15.95 and will come in handy for many shoots to come and should last as long as you do.

Have a Ball
While I'll never give up my Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic for recording dialogue, I really wish I had a good desktop mic that plugged directly into my laptop. Blue Microphones makes such a thing dubbed the "Snowball" that fits all requirements above and even can switch between several different pickup patterns depending on what you need. It would be perfect for a looping mic used in conjunction with something like the "Porta-Booth". At $139 it's not cheap (good audio never is), but I'd still consider it inexpensive. Ken Stone has a full writeup here.

Better than a Credit Card
Every video camera is able to charge its own batteries, but this means your camera must remain dormant during the process. What if you need your camera to operate AND charge batteries? What if you can't wait for a full charge cycle? A speed charger is your answer and I recommend the Lenmar brand. It will charge several types of batteries faster than your cam can (from an AC outlet or cigarette lighter in your car), and won't overcharge, which should give your batteries longer life. I purchased mine from Battery Barn, which is now going for $65. I don't remember paying that much, but it looks like they now come with an attachment for AA/AAA charging as well. No fair!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Inspiration Can Come from Anywhere

It seems like the stories I come up with tend to be on the weird side. This is most likely due to a heavy dose of The Twilight Zone when I was a kid, but it's not the only source. Life experiences, dreams, and real news of the strange can all contribute to an offbeat tale. I'm not exactly sure if other people want to see these yarns, but getting them into a moving picture format is extremely satisfying for me.

Recently, I came across a page on Wikipedia which details a "list of unusual deaths". I can't confirm how many of these are actually true (some are items of recent memory), but it really doesn't matter for narrative purposes. It makes for an interesting (and sometimes disturbing) read, and will definately get those writing juices flowing. Why did that person die in such a manner? You could tell an entire story based around that question (think Sunset Boulevard or DOA).

Here in Salt Lake City, there was a man-made lake that was being drained for some maintenence purpose. At the bottom of the now-empty lake bed was a car with a dead woman inside. She had gone missing and no one knew what became of her. That would make one hell of an opening.

Remember in The Player (1992) when the movie execs sat around the table coming up with movie ideas just from reading that morning's headlines? The same method can work for any story. Ideas are all around us, in written word, the visual image, in people we know and those we don't. Go to a historical part of town and just think what stories those old buildings could tell. Go inside and absorb the atmosphere. Write down how you feel when you're in there.

If you're feeling stuck, do things you don't normally do. Go to parts of the library you seldom frequent. Call distant relatives and have them relate an old war story. Talk to that homeless guy on the street. Dig a hole in your back yard (or your neighbor's yard), and create a story around the first thing you discover.

The possibilities are really endless, but we all need a kick in the creative pants to find that great idea that stirs the passion within. Chances are it its literally right in front of our face.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Online Video Contests: April 2007 Update

It's the start of another month, so here are some more Internet video competitions to hone your skills on. The standard rules for listing here still apply: no entry fee, uploading must be an option, and some prize must be awarded. All current contest links and deadlines can be found in the sidebar.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers Need You!
To direct their next music video, that is. Grab the song "Charlie" from the Stadium Arcadium CD, and make any kind of video you want. Upload it to a special YouTube area, and await maximum exposure! The winner gets $5,000 AND a trip to Paris to meet the band. Not bad, as these contests go. Just hurry, as the deadline is April 20.

DivX Film Festival Deadline Extended
This is some very good news from the DivX folks, especially if you missed this post last month. The rules say you can submit any film that is enhanced with DivX features such as menus, subtitles, multiple audio tracks, etc. The best part are the main prizes which are $5,000, $1000, and $500 (as well as two more sub-category cash prizes for $500 and $250), and a bunch of DivX-certified hardware they are giving away. This is by far the most generous offering from a contest I've seen in awhile, so be sure you enter. The old deadline of March 31 has been pushed back to April 30.

The People Speak (and Make Videos) Water Contest
If PSAs (Public Service Announcements) are more your thing, The People Speak is hosting a contest about water conservancy. Make a 5-minutes-or-less video about why everyone should do it (or how you do it), and upload away. The prize is only $250, but you'll get some pizza money and the satisfaction of informing the public about a worthwhile topic. Deadline is June 15.

The Battlestar Galactica Videomaker Tookit
This one just barely qualifies, but it may prove worthy, especially if you're a fan of the show. This contest involves you making a show-themed video using bonus material provided by Upload your entry, and the winner gets airtime! No "real" prizes are awarded, but bragging rights to all the geeks on your block may be prize enough. Contest ends June 1.


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