The adventures of a professional screenwriter and sometimes film festival jurist, slogging through the trenches of Hollywood, writing movies that you have never heard of, and getting no respect. Voted #10 - Best Blogs For Screenwriters - Bachelor's Degree
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Lancelot Link: Catching Monkeys!
Lancelot Link Thursday! Here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...
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HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!
We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?
Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.
Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.
Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.
WEBFEST THRILLERS: Due to timing, again the obvious choice was the series on Webisodes, except today it was the *best* choice of the noon time period. I was genuinely interested and still scribbling ideas for *my* potential web series. And this block was on *thrillers*. Hey, how could I go wrong?
MALICE: Alice In Wonderland with the supernatural. Another CGI show, and I’m guessing the episode they showed was a “season end” because tough gal Alice (kind of Indiana Jonesish) and her family are down the rabbit hole into some version of hell. There’s a giant land octopus like creature attacking them, and the whole family (especially the little brother) have to band together to destroy it so that they can escape and get back home. One of the interesting lessons I learned from this show was the importance of strong attractive female characters. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I think the combination of the wild west of the web plus the video game culture audience plus the generally female oriented medium of television (even though you are watching these shows on your computer), seems to result in a TOMB RAIDER style of female lead. Many of these shows had the action female lead, and I suspect this character works for both men and women: women have a role model and men like the hot women. The women in these series seem to have some high concept element to their characters and a distinctive look. They are superheroes, whether they are super or not. This made me reconsider the characters in my web series.
BLOODY CUTS: This was an interesting one because it was the stand alone story... one of a 12 part anthology show by a dozen different directors. A way to turn a group of similar shorts into a series, the way THE ABCs OF DEATH turns 26 short films by different filmmakers into a feature. Again, this is an option for filmmakers who want to do a webseries... and with the internet, the different filmmakers can be from all over the world. As long as the different shorts share a theme or genre or basic subject matter and can be logically connected together into a series, everything is great.
THE SYNDICATE: There are always al couple of these that I don’t remember, and this was one of them. The description says it was about a family of serial killers who adopts a serial killer to become part of their tribe. You’d think I would have remembered that. I think I may know the director of this one.
CLUTCH: The other show I don’t remember, the description says it was about hookers vs. the mob. Also sounds interesting... Again, the strong female lead thing.
VAMPIRES: There were a couple of episodes of this documentary style show about people with odd businesses... that cater to the ultra goth crowd. One episode was on a guy in New Orleans who had a Voodoo shop, and really took us into the world of voodoo. It was interesting to see all of the things in the shop, the type of customers that shop there, the custom made gris gris and a little talk about voodoo dolls. I hadn’t really thought of documentary as a genre that would work in web series, but this show had a strong hook (all of the subjects were “vampires”) and material you wouldn’t find on TV. Totally a niche audience show, but also for people like me who might be curious about the niche audience. The show seems to globe trot to different interesting places, and I don’t know if it is all shot by the same crew of by various crews and then edited and voice overed at the main producer’s place.
LAB RATS: The first episode shows you how to establish your story and promise us interesting future episodes. On a college campus two guys bump into each other and talk about the attractive gal walking across campus. One of the guys decides to follow her, and ends up at the research facility where they are looking for college students to be part of their experiments... there is pay. Our protag signs up, and becomes a human lab rat. He’s interviewed, then sent into a strange room... and the fun begins. The lab has maze like hallways, and sinister things are happening there. Our protag is a curious guy, and goes places he is not allowed... This show manages to take practical locations like the college and marry them with some green screen locations like the sterile halls of the lab. A great concept drives the story, and we’ve all seen those adverts on TV looking for test subjects for some new medical treatment... which is not yet FDA approved and may have side effects.
RAGGED ISLE: A continuing conspiracy mystery show about a small town (in Northern Carolina?) where a murder uncovers a big government conspiracy. This show had some great cliff hangers, and opened with the resolution of one massive twist and ended with a new massive twist... all in maybe five minutes! There were a couple of episodes, which helped show how the twists worked in the series: set up at the end of one episode and that twist drives the next episode... until we get a new twist. The acting was a little iffy, as was some of the lighting. This made me think that this show may actually be a “back yard” show, created by some people in their little town far away from Hollywood and shot on their own equipment. You can do one of these *anywhere*. The production value on this show was great, because it *was* shot on location in this small waterfront town.
MIDNIGHT ARCHIVE: Another documentary show about peculiar people, this episode was about a guy who has a collection of human skulls and skeletons. He had a whole room in his house filled with human skeletons and actively collected them. Weird! Oh, and he was single and looking for love... and someone who understood his hobby. Good luck with that! These documentary shows were fascinating, and targeted the niche audience. If you have some odd hobby or interest, a show like this might be something for you to consider making. You can explore your interest... and connect with others who have the same interest. Though, human skull collecting is kinda weird.
RAFI PITTS: Every year Raindance has an Artist In Residence, and this year it was director Rafi Pitts. The afternoon program was going to show his film THE HUNTER and then a Q&A anoput the film and his work. Past Artist In Residence have featured Mike Figgis, Christopher Nolan, and Ken Loach. When Figgis was there, he and I were on a panel on indie filmmaking that was more of a debate between the two of us... and was a great experience for me. I didn’t know who Rafi Pitts was, but that’s the great part of a film festival: you get to learn about new filmmakers whose careers you may follow from that point on. Rafi introduced his film before the screening and gave us a little background, including the reason why he ended up playing a major role in the film. He began as an actor, turned to directing... and when an actor dropped out of the film at the last minute, he could either delay production to recast (which he feared might give the investors cold feet and have them pull out) or proceed with himself in that role.
The houselights dimmed, the film began... and it was a film titled THE HUNTER but not the one Rafi Pitts directed. Same year as his film, same title... different movie. A mix up at the film exchange. (If you want proof that coming up with an original title that is distinctive and hasn’t been used in at least a few decades is important, this mix up is it!) So Rafi ended up doing a 2 hour Q&A.... and it was *better* than seeing the movie. We could all Netflix the movie later (it’s in my queue) but we could never get a two hour discussion on making indie films. Rafi talked about everything from his introduction to film, to working with actors, to directing techniques, to finding the money and then finding distribution and getting his work out there. It was fascinating.
The great part of this is that in that two hours you really git to know him... to the extent that when I bumped into him a couple of days later at the festival we had a great conversation about the films we had seen. The wrong film mistake lead to one of the high points of the festival for me.
And then, the day got better. Okay, the day was actually pretty good, but the *films* got better with a pair of films to top off day 4...
BLACK SQUARE (Japan): (odd/good). In a village in China, artist by night and bricklayer by day Zoping is walking down the road when he sees a strange object floating across the sky... a black square. He follows the black square as it floats across the sky and eventually lands in a big open field. Zoping cautiously approaches the giant black square (like the monolith from 2001) and examines it. Discovers that touching it is not recommended. Then, a naked Japanese man walks out of the black square. I say he’s Japanese, that is where the actor comes from... but he looks androgynous and alien to Zoping. Okay, not totally androgynous because he’s naked and his junk is on display to the world. And it’s freezing cold out. Zoping tries talking to him, but the Stranger doesn’t understand. He’s a blank slate. An alien, like E.T. Zoping takes of his warm winter jacket and gives it to the Stranger. Now the Stranger is covered and probably warm, but Zoping is freezing. The black square floats away... Zoping ends up taking the Stranger to the home he shares with his girlfriend, Hana, who is away for a few days.
Like E.T, the Strangers learns about Earth life from Zoping... and we learn about Zoping in the process. This is a great device for getting to know two characters... and eventually the girlfriend Hana and Zoping’s little sister Lihua who comes home from college. The Stranger is not a “traveling angel” or “traveling devil”, he’s a blank slate who absorbs the knowledge and feelings of others... and eventually learns to speak and becomes part of this family. Early on, the slacker rascal Zoping teaches him how to lay bricks and gives him a (no pay) job on one of his job sites. Zoping is obsessed with the black square, painting canvas after canvas of the object (reminded me of the mashed potatoes scene from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS). The Stranger has no bad habits, except for spending some of his days on the roof of a barn watching the field where the black square landed (E.T. phone home). Zoping’s sister Lihua develops a crush on the Stranger, and is often on the roof with him, talking about her life in college.
Though I keep comparing this to E.T. it is its own film and its own story. Zoping and Lihua have this feeling they have seen the Stranger before, that they *know him* from somewhere. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? The Stranger is now explained to others as a friend from the city, and becomes part of Zoping and Hana’s circle or artists and creative people. One member of the group has this great business idea and they go to the city with him to help him pitch his idea to investors... and the Stranger tags along. The idea, this supporting character’s dream, is crushed by the investors... but the group consoles him and they go to a comedy club to cheer him up. The Stranger wanders off, and they are afraid he may be lost in the city... so they search for him. Lihua finds him on a stoop, where he tells her that is time here is soon over... he’ll be going home.
The next day the black square floats over the countryside again, and the Stranger follows it. Zoping and the group say goodbye and he enters the black square and vanishes. Now, here’s where you think the film is over, and grab your coat... except this is just the end of act two. This film is 144 minutes long! (It should have ended here, but remember how Zoping and Lihua thought the Stranger looked familiar?)
We follow the Stranger *out* of the black square, in China during World War Two where the Japanese have invaded... and the Stranger is a private in the army whose job is to round up Chinese villagers and put them in prison camps. He comes to a house in the hills where Zoping and Lihua’s Great Grandfather and pregnant Great Grandmother (played by the same actors) are hiding. The Great Grandfather and the Japanese soldier call kind of a truce and help each other. The Japanese soldier protects the couple so that the Great Grandmother can give birth... but that means he must lie to his superiors in the military. He’s the man in the middle... and eventually the war catches up to all three. But by then, the Great Grandmother has given birth, which allows Zoping and Lihua to be alive decades later. Though I think this longish act 3 ending slows the momentum and removes some of the magic, it *does* create some wonderful post film conversation on whether the Stranger is a time traveler or a ghost or what. Now that we know his past relationship to this family, we see the first 3/4 of this film a little differently.
Hey, I should also note: like KU ON, it’s a a great high concept at a low cost. Except for a few shots of the black square floating in the sky or on that empty field (where it could be a painted piece of plywood for all we know), there are no special effects in this magical film. The *idea* of the Stranger from another world learning how our world works is amazing... and it’s just an actor! When people think that high concept means high cost, they *don’t* have a high concept. They have an idea that requires a bunch of special effects to prop it up. Find that great idea that stands on its own!
15 YEARS + 1 DAY (Spain): The winning streak continues with this family drama about a troubled 14 year old kid Jon who lives with his single mom Margo... and gets into big trouble for killing the neighbor’s dog as part of an escalating feud. We all know you can’t kill a dog in a movie, but this film shows the steps of the feud leading up to this shocking act... and there’s no way that we can forgive the act, but we understand it. Jon is trying to protect his mother, and does it in the wrong way. This leads his mother to ship Jon off to his *strict* ex military grandfather Max’s house for the summer. Job doesn’t want to go, but there is no choice.
Jon is a kid who has no structure in life, Max is all about structure and discipline. So there is no shortage of conflict here. The great thing about Max is that he’s a nice guy and really cares about his grandson, so even when things blow up... there’s still an undercurrent of love. Jon meets a girl at the internet café that he has a crush on, and that relationship helps him find his way. But pulling at him from the other side is a group of kids he plays soccer with sometimes who are not about some petty theft and minor crimes. One of the kids this group often picks on is a piano prodigy they think is Gay. So Jon has to pick sides, and actually becomes friend with the piano prodigy. But one night there is a fight on the beach where a boy is *killed*, and Jon becomes number one suspect and ends up in big trouble with the police. Jon refuses to cooperate with the police, and now Max must decide who to side with. The cool part is there is a female detective involved, and Max develops a relationship with her, creating even more friction and conflict. All of the characters face really difficult choices, and where Jon learns from Max... Max also learns from Jon. Eventually the conflicts come to a head and we discover who the real killer is and why.
I think this is the second film from Spain that I liked, but also thought was too “small” for an American cinema. You can easily imagine this on television, and it would sweep the Emmy Awards. The characters and story and acting were all great, the beachside community was a great location (as was Max’s interesting house). This was a good solid drama about a kid dealing with all of the problems a 14 year old struggles with... but amplified for drama. Good acting all the way around, and a nice little twist at the end. A good film to close out the fourth day of the festival.
After the film I talked with some folks in the lobby, then raced to the Underground to catch my train back to my place, so I could catch a late night meal and hit the sheets. The next day was Sunday, and I would also have no class... so no need to cram for my exam.
WEBFEST: FUTURE OF WEB TV: The next segment of the webisode thread were shows that had moved up to the next level. These shows had picked up sponsors or were shown on a revenue sharing online channel. They were all a little slicker than the first batch, but still began with someone just doing it.
EVENT ZERO: Really slick webseries (with a moment or two of iffy CGI) about a subway derailment in Sydney Australia caused by a plague outbreak. Sort of OUTBREAK meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as the diseased who have escaped quarantine try to reunited with their loved ones who don’t particularly want to become infected... yet still want to be with the ones they love. The episode shown ended with a wife and husband separated by a door... as one of them dies. Powerful stuff.
CONTINUUM: Another slick “green screen” show where a woman wakes up on a space ship with a computer companion. Really well made, and this may have been the one where I realized how genre driven the successful shows were.
There were a few other shows, one with a group of survivors of the Apocalypse who wake up in a fog surrounded house... and have to figure out who each other are, what happened, and how to survive. Some other shows I don’t remember at this time.
The great part of this segment was the panel afterwards, because it was all about the distribution of webseries. At least in the UK it seems there are web channels that program shows the same way a TV network does. When I was at Portland Film Festival a month earlier there was an afternoon panel on webisodes with a skit comedy team who had managed to get so many hits that YouTube partnered with them and gave them a channel and studio space and equipment to shoot their show. Some of the shows on the Raindance panel had found producers who funded their shows (or co funded) in exchange for advertizing and sponsor income from the show.
These shows were all around 10 minutes or less, some were really short and to the point, others had more story and plot information. I was surprised by the quality level of all of the shows in this segment, on the big screen they looked pretty good... considering they were made to be shown on your laptop screen. The skill here seems to be to write something short and to the point that packs an emotional punch. The EVENT ZERO episode was brief, but action packed and had a big gasp moment at the end. So I think the real skill is in the writing. Being able to get in and get out and keep it exciting and emotional.
Here’s the thing: after seeing the Portland Film Fest panel I was interested in webisodes, but after these two segments I was hot to do one. The great thing about the shows that I’d seen at Raindance is that they were varying in quality, some looking like the stuff I was shooting on Super 8mm when I was in my 20s. So there’s no reason to fear I don’t have the equipment or a pro crew or any of the things that might make me think twice about making a *movie*. Not that making a crappy looking show will get me anywhere, more that imperfections are more easily forgiven on a small screen than a huge one. So I began coming up with webseries ideas that I might do... and actually came up with a pretty good one, and managed to jot down about twenty five episode ideas and some cool character ideas. Over the holidays I plan to talk to my peeps and maybe put this together. My plan is to do a handful of episodes out of pocket and then Kickstarter funding for the rest of the season. That way people can see what the show will be. And that’s one of the interesting things about webisodes: if we do five or six episodes and nobody likes the show? We just trash it and come up with something else. Because these can be shot with skeleton crews (like DAVE GRANGER’s writer director and star and one crew member in the car driving to the location) and digitally, there’s not much to lose if the show is a flop (okay, your time and effort... but as screenwriters we write a bunch of screenplays that will never sell, so we’re used to that.) I was interested enough to catch the morning session of the webisode weekend tomorrow.
After this program the movie showings were coming into sync, so I ditched the rest of the webisode series and ventured out into the lobby to look for my friend Janet. Found her, and we *didn’t* have enough time to eat dinner but *did* have enough time to grab a coffee and buy a sandwich at Costa to smuggle into the movie later. The sync problems did continue, because we’d missed the start of the next movie but had perfect timing for a trio of half hour shorts from the same film maker... which we would see only two of, then ditch the third to see a feature which started about a half hour before the shorts ended.
SATOKO YOKOHAMA SHORTS: These were three longish shorts made by a female Japanese filmmaker. Japanese films are often odd, and the feature we were going to ditch the last short to see was also from Japan. They can be odd/good and odd/odd and odd/bad. Yesterday’s film about the girl who watched misanthropes was odd/good.. The thought process in picking these shorts was that an entire program devoted to one filmmaker meant this was an important filmmaker with interesting films... and a woman, when there are few women filmmakers out there. I was interested in seeing the cream of Japanese female filmmakers (say that three times fast).
GRANNY GIRL: Odd/Odd. A pregnant woman and her husband deal with issues associated with a mother in law’s mailed fish dinner. What’s amusing about this film is that it’s only 13 minutes long but seems to go on for *days*. It doesn’t communicate at all with the audience, so we just watch it instead of experience it. The key to filmmaking is to use cinema to communicate story and emotions to the audience. This film didn’t communicate anything. The Husband tells the pregnant Wife that his mother is mailing some fish, and she needs to be home to accept the delivery, then he leaves for the day. The Wife then does a bunch of really crazy things, wandering around the neighborhood and climbing fences and trying to climb to the top of a water tower and wailing like crazy and talking strangely to strangers and other things for no reason we can understand. At first I thought it might tie into her pregnancy... but it was never tied in. And there’s a little girl who calls her “granny” for no reason. WTF? The fish get delivered and are rotten but they eat them anyway. None of this made sense and there was no effort on the part of the filmmaker to make it make sense. I thought maybe I was not understanding this film because I have a penis, but I talked to Janet afterwards (she does not have a penis) and she didn’t get it either. The other problem with this film is that it was amateurly shot. Yesterday’s Japanese movie was technically well made and had a bunch of great shots and angles... but this short was a technical mess (though the moment where she’s walking around on the water tower and talking to herself was well lighted considering the issues). I’ve seen some technically great films that didn’t make a lot of sense, but were beautiful to look at. Kind of visual poems. Like I said about the webisodes, you can have a technically great film with an okay story or a great story that’s just okay technically... but here we have a film that doesn’t do either. Hey, maybe the next one is better?
JUMP FROM MIDNIGHT: Odd/Bad. You know, I cut the first short a break... but when you get two short films from the same filmmaker and there is no real improvement between them? You start to wonder why there is a program devoted to this filmmaker. This short was also *way* too long at 31 minutes, and again did not seem concerned with communicating the story to the audience. A mock silent film about a girl who steals a kinescope from an old guy who shows movies to working class people and he chases her for the rest of the movie. She swipes some money from folks who pay her to watch the movie and they chase her, too. That’s about it for 31 minutes. The biggest problem is that it has almost no story and characters you don’t understand... and as a silent film does not compare favorably to all of those silent films you have seen from the silent era. Those films are all there to study, so it’s hard to imagine that someone would make a silent film with this extremely low level of visual storytelling in 2013. Again, I thought maybe I just wasn’t getting it and talked to janet afterwards... and she may have liked it less than I did. Part of the problem with both of these films is that they seemed to go on forever. If you aren’t getting the story and the film isn’t well made, you want it to at least be quick. But both of these films had very little story and a very long running time. Years ago at Raindance I complained that a movie was too long... when it was only 3 minutes. One of the staff people chided me on this, but a film needs to be only as long as the story and not a second longer. Better to be brief than overstay your welcome. A 3 minute film can bee too long. The Nokia shorts they used to have at Raindance were *fifteen seconds* long, and some were amazing and some were too long... at fifteen seconds! So get to the danged point! The problem with both of these films is that I could never figure out what the point *was*, and I don’t think the filmmaker knew either. They wandered around. Adding to that, we could never get into the story and they technical aspects didn’t blow me away (which might make me forgive the other stuff).
The next short was *42 minutes long*, and Janet and I skipped it to see a Japanese feature... which we both liked. So it wasn’t a cultural thing, it was a competency thing. I wonder if this filmmaker wasn’t included in the program because she was a female Japanese director (and maybe the only one)? There’s a strange thing that happens in film fests where a film may catch a break because the filmmaker has an inspiring story and overcame some odds... last year at Raindance there was a feature film made by an 18 year old kid. Amazing! A kid that age makes a *feature*! But the problem was that the feature wasn’t very good (again, no ability to communicate using the medium). After that film a group of us talked about how unfair it was to the young filmmaker to have this success, since it was like getting an “A for Effort” instead of an A for quality. In the real world, no one is going to cut you any slack. When you get your break, you have to be ready for it. I thought this kid last year got a lot of big exposure for his film... but I couldn’t really see a distrib giving him the money to make his next film after seeing this one. And I think the same is true here. I wanted to like this Japanese woman’s movies, but the stories didn’t work, they were technically crude, and at the end of the day I had no idea what they were about.
Because I come from the writing side, I always focus more on the story. Like with the webisodes, you can just be technically adequate if the writing is great... that’s why Kevin Smith is a director. He writes clever dialogue and outrageous stories and gets them on film. As writers we may have the writing part down, but we may not have the technical chops. Hey, we live in a digital age where we can practice just about for free. As I said in one of my classes, I bought a close out HD digital home movie camera at Big Lots for under $100, not something you can shoot a feature with... but something you can practice with. Then, *study* films to learn the language of cinema. A friend of mine was getting ready to direct his first no budget feature and I gave him a stack of DVDs to watch. All of them selected because they had different visual storytelling techniques or were great editing lessons to show you what shots you *needed* in order to put together a sequence. He watched them but completely missed the point, tearing apart the acting in each film (he’s an actor). He wasn’t paying attention to the *filmmaking* part of each film, when that’s what he most needed to learn. He knew how to act already (and direct actors), but had no idea how to shoot a movie. Hey, nobody cares what you think of Buster Keaton’s acting style... that’s not going to help you.I think this is a common problem. It’s pretty easy to miss the lessons we need to learn because we’re too busy spotting the lessons we already know. Break that cycle! If you know the emotional part and story part of filmmaking and aren’t great at the technical stuff, really focus on learning the technical stuff. When you are studying a film, *focus* on the technical stuff. Why this shot? Why this focus distance from the subject? Why this angle? Why this camera move? Why this particular lighti8ng scheme? Practice shooting and editing. Figure out *why* one angle or camera move is better than another. Remember that you are using the camera to communicate with the audience: what do you want them to know and feel and how is this shot or combination of shots giving the audience that information? It’s not just about the story, it’s about *telling* the story. If the audience doesn’t get it, the film doesn’t work. Hey, if it’s still pretty pictures, at least you have that. But it’s always best to try to get everything right. To have a great story, well told, and technically great.
Except for one small problem. The Festival has films on five screens, and in the past the starting times for the movies have been in some sort of sync, so you can see a movie on screen 1 and then see the next film on screen 2 and after that see what’s on screen 3, etc. But this year the start times are not in sync, so if you get on one track you may be stuck for the rest of the day. My plan was to see *movies* but I missed the noon movie by minutes and the next film began in an hour, so I got a ticket for what I thought were a program of shorts...
Webfest: UK Series: This year Raindance was ahead of the curve with a weekend series focusing on Web Series. What I thought was a program of shorts ended up being a program of webisodes followed by panels with the filmmakers. And because this thread was out of sync with all of the other films, I was stuck there until the evening...
And it was the greatest accidental choice I made at the fest. The webisodes were a mixed bag, but the panels were fascinating. These people had ideas for an online series... and then just did it. Some of the series were well written and crudely made, others were beautifully made and needed some script work... and some were just right. But all of them were inspiring because these folks didn’t wait for someone to hire them or give them permission, they just did it.
I AM TIM: A reality show about a slacker demon hunter, it was a little ragged in places but fun. There were several short episodes, some good and some okay.
DONALD NEWMAN: UNDERACHIEVER: In a post apocalyptic world where everyone wears period costumes and hangs out in a church, Donald Newman is the chosen one to save mankind. This had one longish episode with lots of great production value but a sketchy story. Maybe later episodes are more story oriented.
GRAVE DANGER WITH DAVE GRANGER: This was my favorite of the lot, and all of the episodes they showed plus the ones I later watched online were great. Dave Granger is an ultra macho thrill seeker survivalist type who has lessons in how to live off the land and defend yourself in case of bear attack or some other disaster. Of course, everything always seems to backfire on camera... and add to this that Dave has recently gone through a bad break up and sometimes bursts into very unmacho tears. Though the episodes follow a certain formula: Dave attempts something amazing and then things go wrong; watching them one a week would make the formula work to advantage.
3SOME: If only this had lived up to its title! But basically a soap about three twentysomething in London, kind of a FRIENDS sort of thing. The episodes shown were kind of talkie.
THE ART OF AWKWARD CONVERSATION: I have no memory of this one.
ALL IN THE METHOD: A pair of struggling actors try to land roles. I recently posted that I’m tired of screenplays about screenwriters or novelists... because they’re kind of incestuous. Instead of looking out at the world, they focus on a very narrow *mirror* reflection of the writer. And the same goes for stories of struggling actors. Instead of playing a character, they play themselves with a bit of fantasy success added. Kind of my pet peeve. The episode was all about auditions, etc. I could sit in my local Starbucks and watch this for real.
BLOODY MARY SHOW: Though supposed to be one of the most popular, I didn’t get it. The story takes place at a bar where vampires and witches and other mythical folks hang out and talk. Amazing make up and costumes, but people standing around talking. Many of the jokes were stale or just fell flat. I think the appeal may be a haven for nonconformists where they are not seen as freaks.
The panel after the webisodes was great. Whether I liked their shows or not, the creators were all clever people who had taken their fates in their own hands and made a show. The creator of I AM TIM talked about changing leads midstream, and the creator of DAVE GRANGER talked about writing several episodes, rehearsing in the car on the way to the location and shooting them one after another until they ran out of daylight. All of this reminded me of my days shooting Super 8mm shorts... and got me thinking about webisodes as the new do it yourself method to get something out there.
The quality issues: those shows with great production value and just okay writing and those with great writing and just okay production value is pretty much the norm in Indie filmmaking. Kevin Smith can write, but his films are crudely made. So this isn’t really much of an issue for material made outside a studio. And though *I* didn’t get BLOODY MARY, the filmmaker had obviously found a niche audience that couldn’t wait to see the next episode. The great part of a webseries is that it didn’t have to appeal to a mass audience, it could *really* narrowcast to a very small audience.
We no longer live in a world of Indie Films that get picked up by Miramax and given a wide release across the world... now we live in a world of Netflix streaming. Where only a couple of years ago, a show online would sound silly and amateur, today we watch movies and TV shows from big studios online... which means a webseries is no longer silly and amateur. I know some people here in the USA who make webseries that are like little movies: really well made with the production value you’d expect from a summer tentpole. And these folks at Raindance had just grabbed a camera and made their show. No one gave them permission.
Because I was still interested in the form, and because I was completely out of sync to see any movies, I stuck around for the next group of shows...
Because I stumbled and fell on this before, I'm going to try to get at least *one* film review up every day. May fail at that, too... but at least it sounds possible while doing all of this other stuff. But first, here is the expanded version of my Day 3 post.
The pattern is: catch the Bakerloo subway train to Piccadilly, sit in Costa Coffee going over notes, get to the cinema early enough to make sure they get my podium and table set up right (they never do - I have to adjust it every morning), and then sit in the cinema lobby reading the program to see what movies might interest me. Since I usually see movies with Janet - she tells me what she wants to see and we figure out what it’s going to be, or if we will be in two different cinemas.
CLASS: Today was structure - but focusing on alternative structures (since this is an indie fest in the UK). Again, not a full house... but about 2/3rds full. Last year people were sitting in the aisles! Class went well, again ran right up to the 2 hour mark. It’s funny, I’d stop at 90 minutes and ask for questions... when no one had any I’d do some more class and stop about 10 minutes to... and ask for questions again and a dozen hands shoot up!
Questions get answered and they come in to tell me to get the hell out of the cinema so they can start movies... and *I* want to see movies as well! That’s what I’m here for!
GREATFUL DEAD (Japan) - no Jerry Garcia, this is a strange Japanese comedy about an unusual young woman whose hobby is watching and tracking misanthropes and people who have accepted their loneliness. It opens with her as a child in a dysfunctional family watching infomercials and ordering some of the crazy products, while her divorced dad has sex with slutty step mom... and she learns to live alone. Later, after her father has died and left her all of his money, she starts this odd hobby of spying on people who are either ostracized by society or have decided that society is just too much trouble. Lonely people. But when some religious missionaries give some of her subjects hope to reenter society... she connects with a crazy misanthrope and, well, kills them. Beginning a crazy war with an old infomercial king. *DARK* comedy, really well done.
One of the great things about this film is how *happy* she is when the war begins. She is *dancing* in a store as she buys the tools required to dispose of a body. There’s a nice subplot with her older sister who is married with a kid and *didn’t* inherit anything... but wants her little sister to settle down and live a normal life. But, some people were never meant to be part of society... this misanthropes and little sister.
This is the kind of weird ass film that will play at film fests but will probably never surface in the USA. The audience is so small (me, maybe some of you reading this) that it doesn’t make financial sense to release it... even on DVD. That’s too bad. Maybe our new world of streaming will allow weird ass films like this to find their audience.
OUTPOST 11 - UK contained weird sci-fi film about three soldiers in a remote outpost in the Arctic during WW3 who each begin to go mad. Made on "a small bag of cash" (according to the director) it has some nice stop motion, some okay CGI effects... and a story that's a bit slow for a contained thriller with 3 characters. One of the things that might have helped - near the end one of the soldiers goes to another outpost and discovers that something has driven them all violent crazy - and everyone is dead. Had this been the first scene, the slow parts of the rest of the film would have been filled with suspense because we would know what *might* happen to them. Lots of steampunkish stuff, too - and some non-science sci-fi stuff that we weren't really sold on.
The sets were nice, and they shot in the snow somewhere (was it Scotland?). Obviously influenced by Carpenter’s THE THING, it deals with the pressure of boredom during the war. I loved the stop motion spiders, and there’s this cool shot where two people are having a conversation where a *giant* spider walks past the window in the background. I thought it needed more story and more tension, and the actor playing the old soldier looked too scruffy for his dialogue. Maybe things are different in the UK, but I expect a career soldier to be very regimented and disciplined... someone who can only live in an environment where his clothes are perfectly pressed and his movements stiff and measured. This character’s dialogue was all about the Private (our protag) being a slacker, but it was this lifer guy who seemed the slacker. Maybe that was on purpose, but that didn’t come across. The science stuff that didn’t work well had to do with the Act 3 conflict of a boiler gizmo overheating. It seemed like there was no actual research on this, so the “science” of the device didn’t make sense. The weird thing with science fiction is that you have to sell us on anything weird. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a pile of exposition to tell us how something works, but you need to show us how it works and why it’s important to keep it operational. Though this boiler gizmo was mentioned, we never really understood what it did. Compare that to all of the Act 3 conflict elements in ANDROMEDA STRAIN, many of which we see when the crew goes down into the lab... so we get a bit of invisible exposition. And the other things are introduced early and they make complete sense to us: you need those darts and the gas and the lasers to stop a contaminated lab animal from escaping into the real world. Even if you are dealing with a science fiction world, you need to do some research and make us believe that these things exist (and for a logical reason). I believed trhe giant spiders more than I believed the boiler gizmo! Still, for a movie made with just a small bag of cash, nice.
TWO JACKS - Based on a Tolstoy novel, directed by Bernard Rose (CANDYMAN) and starring Danny Huston, this tells the story of a legendary film director who returns to Los Angeles flat broke and owing everyone money or favors... who continues to screw up big time! But somehow manages to screw all the wrong women and still land on his feet, and gets a film deal. 20 years later, his son comes to Los Angeles to direct his first film... and encounters the *daughter* of one of the women his father screwed and dumped... and many other people who are part of the ghost of his father. He is his father's son - and soon is making love with the daughter and promising her a role in his film... plus screwing the producer's mistress while drunk in a moving car. Where the father managed to land on his feet, the son lands on his ass... and is banished from Hollywood.
This was another bag of cash movie, despite the cast. Rose owns some equipment and likes to make movies with his friends. There was some great production value, here: real luxury hotels, a Hollywood Hills home that only a movie star (or the guy who wrote CANDYMAN) could afford to live in, a weird masquerade ball where everyone was dressed in 1920s costumes. Cameos from Sienna Miller and Billy Zane and many others that Rose could get for free (or SAG minimum). The film was impressive for having a small budget. The issue was the script. Rose introduced the film and said that it was based on a Tolstoy story, “The Two Hussars”... and that one of the thing that drew him to the story was how the world can change in 20 years. I thought that was a great idea... but you don’t really see that in the film. Though Rose mentioned the massive changes in technology over the past 20 years, none of that was on display in this film. Also, none of the changes in Hollywood in the last 20 years (and there have been many). You know, the idea of a screenplay on paper is something of the past, everything is a pdf that is emailed to someone, now. And, as I like to say: the suits have gotten suitier. Twenty years ago studios were not some offshoot of a conglomerate that was more interested in the ancillary business than the film itself. And twenty years ago there was a mid range movie... the kind the father would make. The son would face a Hollywood where everything is a huge event movie (superhero or not) or some very small genre film. Both father and son end up making a deal with the same producer, for the same kind of movie... and no one talks to the son about all of the business aspects that he has to make sure are covered (videogame, Happy Meal, music tie in, foreign incentives and coproduction and cast requirements, etc). It’s as if this film which is *about* a father and son’s different experiences in the film business didn’t want to deal with the film business part. The movie never takes us into that world. Never shows us the interesting parts of that world. So it comes off as a trifle.
Here's the thing: when you have a small (or nonexistent) budget the weight of the film ends up on the script. That's also the element that is the least expensive to work on until you get it right. Even shooting digitally, if you do 100 takes of the same shot, you're burning up the crew and cast's time... and they're probably being paid and being fed. But rewriting a scene 100 times until you get it right is just you and the computer. Yeah, you also have to feed yourself, but that's cheaper than a full cast and crew! So indie people: spend the time to get the script perfect, *then* go to film. TWO JACKS has everything going for it... but the script. It's not a bad script, it just isn't the best version of this story.
But here's the great thing about Raindance and film fests in general, and why you should go. All three films had Q&As with the directors... and often the stars and key creatives. The Japanese director was there for a (translated) Q&A, the UK director was there with the entire cast and the producers and editor and pretty much everyone else who worked on the film for a great Q&A, and Bernard Rose and Danny Huston and the producer and actress Rosie Fellner were there for a great Q&A afterwards. At a fest, you get this kind of access to the talent that made the film.
In 1955 Alfred Hitchcock became the world's most famous director thanks to his TV show ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. The show ran from 1955 to 1962... when it expanded into the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR and continued to run until 1965. An entire decade as one of TV's top rated shows... with Hitch doing comic introductions and warning us about the upcoming commercials. Hitchcock directed a handful of episodes over the years as well.
In 1957, NBC decided to do an anthology series called SUSPICION which would be a mix of *live* TV and filmed episodes, hosted by Dennis O'Keefe (LEOPARD MAN) and co-produced by Hitchcock's company... with many of the filmed episodes using Hitch's TV crew (who would later make the movie PSYCHO). The very first episode was directed by Hitchcock... and has kind of been lost over the years. O'Keefe split after hosting several episodes and the odd mix of live and filmed didn't catch on... and the show didn't have enough episodes for syndication (only 40 episodes were made), so it never popped up in reruns like HITCHCOCK PRESENTS or the other show that used most of the HITCHCOCK crew - THRILLER hosted by Boris Karloff. So this Hitchcock directed episode has been unseen for years. Based on a great short story by Cornell Woolrich (REAR WINDOW) who is one of my favorite writers and the master of suspense on paper.
Lancelot Link Thursday! Wow, we're almost at Thanksgiving... where did this year go? Here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...
My three favorite Hitchcock films are NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW and NORTH BY NORTHWEST... And it’s kind of strange to think that the same guy directed them - because they might all have suspense, but all have very different tones. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a comedy chase film with so much clever dialogue and so many farcical scenes that you might forget about the cool plot twists and large scale set pieces. Though movies like SAN FRANCISCO had big set pieces before this, I can’t think of any film with *as many* set pieces.
This is where all of our action films came from, and many say where the version of James Bond on screen came from. Screenplay by Ernie Lehman, who is an amazing short story writer, an amazing novelist, an amazing screenwriter and producer and won a bunch of Oscars. If you’ve read any of his stories, or seen the film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, you know he travels in some nightmare version of the TV sow MADMEN - where you have to sell your soul to sell a product. Here we get the lighter version of the Lehman lead - Cary Grant as an ad man who lies to everyone, has a liquid lunch often followed by afterwork cocktails, too many girlfriends and not a single real friend... except his mother. He’s charming... but all surface - he doesn’t want to know what’s underneath. Who really cares?
Nutshell: If there was ever a boy to cry wolf, it’s Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) - what does the O stand for? Nothing. In the opening minute and a half, we get a quick sketch of adman Roger - momma’s boy, playboy, liar, drinker... before a silly mistake in identity has him kidnaped by two armed thugs who think he’s a CIA Agent. They take him to this big country estate owned by Lester Townsend, where he meets the man of the house (James Mason at his best) who has just a minute before dinner guests arrive to decide whether he should kill Roger or not. Mason’s secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau) is thin and impeccably dressed and single - you do the math - and seems to enjoy causing people harm. When Roger keeps saying he’s *not* this CIA Agent George Kaplan, and even has a driver’s license to prove he’s Roger Thornhill, Leonard answers: “They make such good ones.” Roger - who tells lies for a living - can’t get anyone to believe him. Mason’s threats are so sophisticated and urbane that it takes you a moment to realize they *are* threats. Mason has Leonard kill Roger - with Bourbon and a sportscar, but Roger escapes death... and now can’t get anyone to believe that spies are trying to kill him. Guess what? Lester Townsend is a big wig at the United Nations - and doesn’t look anything like James Mason. No one in this film is who they claim to be - and nothing is as it seems. Mason is really an enemy spy named Van Damm... and Roger ends up framed for the real Townsend’s murder. There is no one to turn to - so Roger runs. He must find the real George Kaplan so that Van Damm will stop trying to kill Roger. By trains, planes, and automobiles Roger heads North by Northwest looking for the real Kaplan... and becoming an accidental spy and man of action in the process. The man who took nothing seriously grows up - and becomes a man of his word.
Hitch Appearance: Right up front, trying to catch a bus... and failing.
Sound Track: A great Bernard Herrmann score! Also, by the way, a great opening title sequence.
Great Scenes: They’re all great scenes. Seriously. The great thing about NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that you can take the smallest and most forgotten scene in the whole film - and it’s great! Here’s an example - a junk scene where Roger leaves Kaplan’s hotel and takes a taxi to the United Nations to ask Townsend what the hell is going on and why me? A pair of assassins are following him. But here we get a comedy version - Outside the hotel a Doorman has secured a cab for a Tourist Couple, when Roger bolts out, pushed them aside, gets in the cab and takes off. The Doorman hails a second cab for them, opens the door for them... and the Two Assassins bolt out of the hotel, push them aside, get in the cab and take off. The Doorman looks at the Tourist Couple, then cautiously looks for another cab. That’s just one of those scenes that gets the character from point A to point B!
Here’s another junk scene - Roger is locked in a hospital room and needs to get out - basically, another scene that will get him to a location where a “real scene” will take place. So Roger opens the hospital window, steps out onto a narrow ledge, gracefully walks along the ledge to the next hospital window, opens it and climbs into the room. A sleeping woman - not bad looking - yells: “Stop!” Then puts on her glasses and looks Roger over... then says: “Stop” in a much sexier voice. Now Roger has to get out before she tackles him! Another funny scene that is basically there to get Roger out of a locked room.
Every scene in the script - even these funny ones - move the story forward. This is a *relentless* script - it’s always moving. It is always a fast paced film - there are screenwriters who complain that movies today are designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation (wait - how long has MTV been around? When the Rolling Stones sing about their generation - that’s a bunch of AARP members!) and these danged kids don’t want to take the time to build up to a story for a half an hour or so before the plot kicks in. NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made in 1959 - not only kicks into gear a minute and a half in, it doesn’t let up!
Bourbon And A Sports Car: Three martini lunch Roger is held down by the Two Assassins as Leonard forces him to drink a full bottle of Bourbon, then they put him behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible on a winding cliff-side road... and send him to his death. The great part about this is that it is smart on the side of the bad-guy spies - Roger’s death will look like a drunk driving accident. Problem is - Roger takes control of the car and manages to barely miss driving off the cliff... so the Two Assassins give chase in their car! Now we have a car chase with a very drunk driver. This adds an extra element to an already exciting car chase. One of the cool things about this scene is that Hitchcock gives up a driver’s POV through the windshield shot alternating with Roger behind the wheel so that *we* are driving the car on this dangerous winding road. Another thing he does is give us Roger’s *drunk POV* at times - with double vision (which road is the real one?) and blurry vision. Again - by putting us in Roger’s shoes and in the driver’s seat we feel like all of this is happening to *us*. If you’ve seen the car chase on the big screen - those POV shots as we head to a cliff or an oncoming car are scary! Any time you can find a way to turn the audience into the protagonist, you create an emotional scene.
Cops At Townsend’s: Roger manages to crash into a police car, which forces the Two Assassins to back off. But now Roger is in trouble with the law. When they ask him how much he’s had to drink, he raises his hands as if measuring a fish and says “This much”. By the way, the arresting officer is Corporal Emil Klinger - that’s where the M.A.S.H. character came from. He’s given a phone call, and calls his mother... “Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill” - as if she may have forgotten her son’s name. As an in joke only for my own amusement, when I call my mom I always say, “This is your son, Bill.” The next morning Roger tells the judge his story... and the judge sends a pair of Detectives with Roger and his Mother to the Townsend house... where Mrs. Townsend says Roger is “a little pink-eyed, but aren’t we all?” (a phrase I’ve taken up using the day after a party.) Then tells the Detectives that Roger was too drunk to drive... and the more Roger tries to prove he’s innocent, the more he just looks crazy. The sofa where they forced him to drink and spilled some booze on the cushions? Completely clean. The cabinet where Roger claims they got the bourbon - filled with books, not liquor bottles.
It’s important in a thriller script to remove the police and the authorities from the equation - so that the protagonist is alone against the world - and this scene does that. At *best* Roger looks like a drunk trying to get out of a police charge. At the end of the search of Townsend’s the Detectives apologize to Mrs. Townsend, and take Roger back to the police station. Roger’s mother tells him to just, “Pay the two dollars” - another phrase I often use to mean, quit arguing, you’ve lost and you’re looking silly.
The only way Roger can prevent himself from getting slightly murdered is to find the real George Kaplan... that is Roger's quest in the story.
Elevator with Killers: Roger manages to drag his Mother to the hotel where Kaplan is staying... and bribes her to get the room key. She won’t do it for $10 or $20, but $50 gets her cooperation. They search Kaplan’s room and discover they have Roger confused with a much shorter man... who has dandruff. But the strangest thing is that the Maid, the Valet and everyone else at the hotel has never actually *seen* Kaplan - they all think Roger is Kaplan. Then the phone rings - Van Damm’s Two Assassins! If Roger isn’t Kaplan, what is he doing in Kaplan’s room? And of course, the call came from the lobby phone - the Assassins are on the way up! Roger and his Mother race out of the hotel to the elevators... where the Assassins get off the up elevator and join Roger and his Mother going down.
Being trapped is one of the basic scenes in a thriller script - but Roger isn’t trapped *alone* with a pair of killers, his mom and a bunch of other people are on the elevator. Roger points out the Assassins to his Mother, who asks them: “You aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” The question is so absurd, that people in the elevator start laughing... and soon *everyone* is laughing (including the Assassins) *except Roger*. He is the man alone - no one will believe him. The boy who cried wolf.
United Nations: Roger goes to the United Nations to find Townsend, has him paged... and this distinguished looking man introduces himself as Mr. Townsend, and Roger replies: “No you’re not.” And now Townsend must convince Roger he is who he is... more identity confusion! Roger still isn’t sure he believes him, and pulls out a picture of the guy who claimed to be Townsend (Van Damm) and shows it to Townsend - who gasps! Eyes open wide at the picture! Then he seems to faint! Roger grabs him to prevent him from falling, sees a big throwing knife in Townsend’s back and pulls it out... and that’s when everyone at the United Nations notices him - and people start snapping pictures. Roger sees one of the Assassins slip out of the room... leaving Roger, bloody knife in hand, trapped in the room! Roger escapes - and we get a great high overhead shot of Roger fleeing to a taxi - he’s like a chess piece or maybe an ant. Small, insignificant.
Seven Parking Tickets: Roger ends up at Grand Central Station - with just about everyone in the world looking for him. He tries to buy a ticket *North* and the ticket salesman pesters him with questions - it’s like everyone is against Roger. The ticket salesman gets Roger to wait for a moment... as he calls the police. Roger escapes, police chasing, and sneaks onto the train.
In the passageway, he runs into a pretty girl - Eve Kendall - flirts with her a bit... then the police enter the car. While Roger hides, Eve tells the policemen that she thinks he got off the train. After the police leave, Roger tells her he has seven parking tickets. After the train is in motion, Roger has no ticket so he has to keep moving... and goes to the dining car... where he’s seated at a table with Eve. He lies to her about who he is and where he’s from... but she stops him - she knows he’s Roger Thornhill and that he’s wanted for murder on the front page of *every* newspaper in the nation. The man who lies easily to women, can’t seem to lie to this woman. He has to be *honest* with her! Yikes! She flirts with him, says she has a bedroom car with plenty of room. Wow! Then she says he’d better hurry up. Roger thinks she's hot to trot... but the train just made an unexpected stop and a bunch of police just got on!
Eve’s Compartment: The police are doing a compartment-by-compartment search for Roger - and they enter Eve’s bedroom and ask if she’s seen him. Roger is hiding in a upper bed... and must be completely quiet and still while the police are in the bedroom. This is another one of those basic scenes in thrillers. Because Eve had dinner with Roger, they *really* question her. Take their time. She says they just shared a table, but don’t know each other. Eventually the police leave... and Roger can breathe again.
Now we come to the love scene - a kiss that manages to take them from wall to wall all the way around the car. Sure: “they kiss”, but how is *this* kiss different than any other kiss in any other movie? Here we have this romantic never-ending kiss where they use every surface of the room. A sexy, romantic idea for a kiss.
The next morning, when the conductor knocks on the door, Roger hides in the bathroom... and we get one of the big twists in the story. Afterwards the conductor walks down the passageway to a door, knocks on it, says the woman in compartment whatever (Eve) sent this message. A hand takes it, closes the door. The note says that she has Roger, what should she do with him. Reading the note? Van Damm and Leonard. Eve is a bad girl!
Redcap Spin: When the train pulls into the station, the police are waiting... so Roger disguises himself as a redcap, and we have another basic suspense scene, and we see an ocean of redcaps - dozens of them - one is Roger. A redcap in his underwear tells the police he was mugged for his uniform, so police start grabbing redcaps and spinning them around to look at their face. One-by-one the redcaps are spun around, and we know that any minute they will get Roger - and he’ll be caught. Suspense builds as there are fewer and fewer redcaps - because we know the next one will probably be Roger! It’s like a ticking clock - with redcaps instead of minutes passing.
When they spin the last redcap, it’s not Roger, because he is already in the train station men’s room changing and shaving... with Eve’s little woman’s razor. The big macho guy shaving at the sink next to him uses a straight razor - and gives Roger a look.
Crop Duster Scene: Eve tells Roger she’s gotten a message from Kaplan to meet him at Prairie Stop - take the bus, not a car. Roger gets off the bus in the middle of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Nothing but fields. Suspense is the *anticipation* of action - which means suspense can literally be nothing happening. This scene starts with Roger just standing in a deserted road, waiting for Kaplan to show up. Except we know there is no Kaplan, and that Eve (who sent him there) is a bad girl. That means this is a trap, but Roger doesn’t know it. That’s called “audience superiority” - the audience has information that the protagonist doesn’t have. We know Roger is in big trouble, he doesn’t. So while he stands there and an occasional cars zips by, nothing is happening... except we know any minute something *will* happen. And that creates suspense. In order to keep the suspense perking, Roger sees an old pick up truck driving toward him. Hey, that could be Kaplan! (Except we know it’s more likely someone who is going to kill Roger). The pick up truck stops, lets out a man in a suit, takes off. Now Roger is on the opposite side of the road from this man. And Roger waits for the best moment to cross the highway. Then asks if he’s Kaplan. The man answers “Can’t say that I am, ‘cause I’m not.” This guy talks stranger than Yoda! Then the guy sees a crop duster, starts a conversation about crop duster pilots... and how dangerous the job is, Many get killed. Wait... is that a threat? Just as the man’s bus is pulling up, the man notes that the crop duster is dusting where there ain’t no crops. Okay - the man was a potential threat, and the moment he is taken away, another threat is introduced... and the type of suspense changes.
We go from nothing happening, to the crop duster attacking Roger. Now our suspense is based on the anticipation of the crop duster killing Roger. Hitchcock alternates shots of the crop duster plane zooming at us, and shots of Roger running. This puts us in the protagonist’s shoes, just like the Bourbon and Sportscar scene. The cool thing here is that the shots of both the crop duster and Roger become shorter as the scene goes on, building up the pace and the anticipation/suspense. The shots of Roger also become closer - as if the plane is getting closer. When Roger hides in a cornfield, the crop duster sprays the corn - forcing Roger out into the open again. Eventually the plane sprays machinegun fire - and Roger is running for his life.
There’s a great little bit of simple visual storytelling at the end of this scene. Roger steals a farmer’s pick up truck with a refrigerator in the back... and we cut to the city at night where a policeman is writing a ticket on a completely out of place pick up truck with a refrigerator in back. This not only tells us Roger is in the city... but it’s a funny way to give us this information.
Eve’s Hotel Room: Roger realizes Eve sent him to his death, and goes to confront her. I use a clip from this scene in my 2 day class to illustrate how you can show complex emotions through the actions of the characters. When Eve goes to hug Roger, his hands tun to fists and he does not touch her. Everything Roger *says* in this scene has a double meaning: “Surprised to see me?” “There’s just no getting rid of me.” But it is all said in a friendly manner - so we need the actions to show Roger’s anger.
While Roger is in the shower, Eve leaves... but Roger wasn’t really in the shower. To link this scene to the next, they use a device: Roger rubs a pencil over the pad of paper next to the phone in the hotel room... exposing an address. Then we see the address on the outside of the auction house.
Auction: This is the first scene with Roger and Van Damm and Eve - our little romantic triangle. And that is how the scene is played - as a romantic triangle where the losing party gets killed. Because this is a scene where the characters are in public and can’t kill each other with guns or knives, they try to off each other with words. Roger and Van Damm (and sometimes Leonard) dig into each other with the most painful words they can find - and this becomes a battle of the wits. What’s cool is the other person in the room - the studio censor - who forces them to find clever ways to hit below the belt. When Eve says Roger followed her from the Hotel, Van Damm asks if he was in her room, and Roger replies that *everyone* has been in her room. Later Roger tells Van Damm that Eve does great work - she puts her whole body into it.
As they verbally spar, with Eve in the middle, Leonard is bidding on a piece of art. They outbid everyone else - they *must* have this little statue. Once they get it, Van Damm and Eve leave... And the two Assassins and Leonard block all of the exits. No way out. Here’s the kind of thing that separates good scenes from average ones - finding the completely different way to resolve the problem. The one we have never seen. As screenwriters we always want to find the unusual solution to the problem. Here we have Roger trapped - assassins at every door. How does he get out of it? He bids on the piece of art being offered... but bids weird. Now he has called attention to himself, and the assassins can’t really do anything to him. He’s in public. But Roger keeps bidding, and eventually ruins the auction to the point that the auction house calls the police. When the police arrive, Roger *punches* one of them. That guarantees that instead of ticketing him or warning him, they will have to take Roger to the police station and put him in a cell... which will make it close to impossible for the assassins to get him. Finding the usual solution makes the scene different and interesting and exciting... oh, and *funny*, since Roger gets to act like a crazy guy in the middle of a very dignified setting.
What Is A MacGuffin? The little pre-Columbian statue that Van Damm was so insistent to buy at the auction is one of the film’s two MacGuffins (the other is George Kaplan). When asked what a MacGuffin was, Hitchcock said it was a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland... but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands... hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin is the physical device that drives the story - the thing that everyone is after. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE everyone wants to get their hands on the Russian Lecter coding machine. Of course, the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin. Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must own. In THE LADY VANISHES the MacGuffin is a *tune* that is really a code that Mrs. Froy has memorized - turning her brain into the MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin drives the story - where would THE MALTESE FALCON be without The Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story... but Hitchcock noted that it may be the thing that drives the story, but what it is doesn’t matter very much. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we have this pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the USA - and delivering it to the Soviets... and the CIA must stop this from happening and recover that microfilm... and Roger ends up being the guy in the middle. So the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue and the microfilm that is inside it by the end of the movie. This film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has secretly been up to since the very first frame. It's why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan... the only man who can get Roger off the hook. So the microfilm is *really* why they are trying to kill Roger... and Roger’s only hope of survival after the auction scene is to get that microfilm!
But here’s the question: what’s on the microfilm? Guess what? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is *about*), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Roger what it’s all about? Takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines) and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off. We never find out what is on the microfim.
And George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Roger is chasing, doesn't exist... but more on that in a moment.
Now, I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm - but we live in a post CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that danged microfilm. And the cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high concept substitute. If the *MacGuffin* is some high concept device, then you can have a standard non-high con thriller (or action or whatever) movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a non-high con story... but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that *lightning* shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin *something* rather than just a device - because it adds production value. I have a half finished novel from decades ago about good guy spies and bad guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the “freon bomb” that flash freezes anything in a 5 mile radius. Opening chapter had a test on a tropical island... that froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when you touched them. To me, that raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting. Better than “just microfilm”.
But the whole story is about that MacGuffin. You can’t abandon it midway, or just decide it’s not important. All of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is about getting that Ark, all of THE MALTESE FALCON is about getting the black bird, and by the time we find out what has been driving NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s all about the microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue and George Kaplan.
Mt. Rushmore Restaurant: After the Professor (I’m sure some relation to the Video Professor) tells Roger that the fate of the free world rests on that microfilm of, well, whatever’s on it, and that George Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy to cover the tracks of the *real* CIA Agent... he also reveals another mistaken identity and twist - Eve isn’t bad girl at all, *she’s* the deep cover CIA agent... and Roger has given Van Damm reason to mistrust her. No one in this film is who they seem to be! So they hop a plane to Rapid City where Van Damm has a house near Mount Rushmore to try and set things straight.
Roger meets with Van Damm and Leonard... and Eve at the restaurant overlooking Mount Rushmore. This scene could have taken place anywhere - so why not this really cool location? NORTH BY NORTHWEST isn’t just a story that moves in that direction, it’s also a travelogue movie, where every interesting location anywhere near that route is a story stop. We are seeing America in this film. Mount Rushmore in a great background to a scene.
In the restaurant, Roger makes a deal - he will allow Van Damm to take the statue (and microfilm) to the Soviets in exchange for... Eve. She betrayed him, and he’s going to make her suffer. Van Damm sees that Eve is *not* working with Roger and the CIA, and they are no longer suspicious of her. Everything is back on track, right? Except Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger - again and again! Roger foes down, dead. Leonard and Van Damm leave the restaurant and escape in their car. Eve gets in her own car and races away. Leaving Roger dead on the floor. This is our protagonist. Played by a huge star, Cary Grant. And they kill him about three quarters of the way through the film! His body is put in the back of an ambulance and taken away...
Woods Goodbye: The ambulance is driven into the woods, where it stops. Trees everywhere. Beautiful. Then Eve’s car pulls up and stops. And Roger hops out of the back of the ambulance. Eve’s gun was filled with blanks.
The Professor tells Roger he only has a minute... and Roger and Eve slowly walk toward each other - meeting in the middle of the woods. This is the first time Roger has meet with the real Eve - neither is playing a role. And it’s a great love scene - because both are completely without defenses. They have their first real kiss, a small conversation... then she says she has to get back. Roger thinks this whole fake murder has been to pull her out of danger... but it has really been to make her a fugitive from justice so that Van Damm will have to take her out of the country with him when he delivers the MacGuffin... so that she can meet and infiltrate the Soviet side of the operation. Roger doesn’t want her to go - he loves her. When he tries to stop her, he gets KOed by a Park Ranger and Eve drives off to Van Damm’s house.
Van Damm’s House: Now we get that scene where Roger escapes the hospital... and goes to Van Damm’s house. Again - an amazing house instead of just some house. This place is on stilts and really cool looking. Roger climbs the stilts, ending up just under the living room window... where he overhears Leonard and Van Damm talking about the plane that will land soon to take them away... and Leonard tells Van Damm that there’s a problem with Eve.
And Leonard aims a gun at Van Damm.
And Van Damm isn’t hit.
It’s Eve’s gun - filled with blanks.
Now, there could have just been a scene where Leonard tells Van Damm that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. But that is the least exciting way to get that information across. Here we get the *most exciting* method to reveal that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. The most dramatic. The most inciting - because Van Damm *punches* Leonard in the face afterwards. Always look for the best way to reveal information - if there is a dull way, or even a traditional way - look for some other method. Find the most exciting way - the most unusual and different way.
Van Damm tells Leonard the best way to deal with Eve is from a great height - over water. They are going to throw her out of the plane! Roger overhears this, climbs to a section under Eve’s window and throws rocks at her window. What happens next? When she *finally* looks out the window, Roger is forced to hide from Van Damm and Leonard... and she doesn’t see him! Instead of things going according to plan - the opposite happens. No easy scenes, here. Roger climbs up to her room... just as she’s left her room and gone downstairs! Again - nothing happens the easy way.
So Roger is upstairs, hiding on the balcony, and Eve is downstairs sitting on the sofa in the same room as Van Damm and Leonard. How does he stop her from going with them? How does he tell her they know she’s a CIA agent?
We get a great bit of visual storytelling. On the train, she sees his monogrammed handkerchief and asks what the O stands for, and he explains “nothing”. He is ROT. Roger is looking for something to signal her with, pulls out his handkerchief, sees ROT - she knows him by those initials - and pulls out a monogrammed matchbook, jots a note inside, and throws it from the balcony to the ashtray on the table directly in front of Eve while Leonard and Van Damm are looking out the window as the plane lands. The matchbook misses the ash tray. It misses the table. It hits the floor halfway to Leonard’s feet. Nothing easy here... and it gets worse. The matchbook is a “focus object” - an object that creates suspense. Leonard turns and walks toward Eve, sees the matchbook, picks it up! Suspense - because we know if he opens the matchbook and reads the message, Eve is dead. We are focused on that matchbook... will he open it? Examine it? Realize that ROT stands for Roger O Thornhill? But here’s the thing - he thinks Roger is George Kaplan... so ROT means nothing to him. So he places the matchbook in the ashtray in front of Eve. But Eve knows ROT - and now must *not* look at the matchbook while Leonard is talking to her. When he turns away, she grabs the matchbook, reads the message... but the plane has landed, and Van Damm and Leonard hustle her out of the house so that they can leave... and they can throw her out of the plane later.
When they leave the house, Roger runs downstairs to rescue her... but a burley maid aims a gun at him and tells him to freeze. Guess which gun it is? The one filled with blanks! The gun-filled-with-blanks gets used three times in this story - and not once is it contrived or illogical.
Hanging From Lincoln’s Nose: Which brings us to Roger and Eve and the MacGuffin trying to escape by climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore while Leonard and the Two Assassins give chase. Whenever you can *combine* threats, you increase the excitement. Mount Rushmore is not only the coolest place for a chase scene, it’s easy to fall from - making it a chase at a very dangerous location (two ways to die!). In here somewhere Roger refers to the pre-Columbian statue as “the pumpkin” - which is a reference to the Pumpkin Papers from the 1948 HUAC investigation into communist spies in the USA - run by some guy named Richard Nixon who would eventually become President. They found microfilm in a hollowed out pumpkin in a farm in the midwest. America’s heartland - overrun by commies!
The big flaw in NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Roger doesn’t resolve the conflict! The Professor shows up with a sharp shooter and arrests Van Damm and shoots Leonard seconds before he would have killed Roger and Eve. William Goldman uses this scene as an example of wrapping up the plot and all of the subplots in about 30 seconds. Though it would be better if Roger had resolved the conflict, I cut the film some slack because of the very last shot: Roger and Eve take the train on their honeymoon, and after they get into bed together... the train goes into a tunnel.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a fun film - comedy, thrills, suspense, romance... but still some real emotions. If there was ever a film that opened the door for the biog summer blockbusters we have today, this is it.
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"SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING is the best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing a screenplay I've ever read." - Ted Elliott, co-writer of MASK OF ZORRO, SHREK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the sequels (with Terry Rossio).(ie; 4 of the top 20 Box Office Hits Of ALL TIME.)
I've written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO, 2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). I've been on some film festival juries, including Raindance in London (twice - once with Mike Figgis and Saffron Burrows, once with Lennie James and Edgar Wright). Roger Ebert talked about me with Gene Siskel on his 1997 "If We Picked The Winners" Oscar show. I'm quoted a few times in Bordwell's great book "The Way Hollywood tells It". My USA Net flick HARD EVIDENCE was released on video the same day as the Julia Roberts' film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. I've also written a whole bunch of theatrical projects that never got made (I got paid) and was stupid enough to actually *turn down* the job of adapting Dan Brown's ANGELS & DEMONS. On the personal side - I'm single and fat and 6 foot 4 inches tall. Like dogs, hate cats. Why is the blog called Sex In A Submarine?
"SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING is the best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing a screenplay I've ever read." - Ted Elliott, co-writer of MASK OF ZORRO, SHREK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the sequels (with Terry Rossio).(ie; 4 of the top 20 Box Office Hits Of ALL TIME.)