Monday, July 21, 2008

The Batman Effect

You are reading this *after* I have seen THE DARK KNIGHT, but I am writing this a few hours before I see the film. I have Arclight tickets for Sunday night, which was (is as I write this) my birthday. Some friends of mine and I are having dinner somewhere (maybe Cat & Fiddle) and then going to see the bat man. Usually I’m in Vegas on my birthday, but for the past two years there’s been some complication that has kept me in LA... Last year I had just returned from London and decided to postpone my Vegas trip until August, this year it was a combination of writing projects and a meeting with a producer - I’ll probably go to Vegas later in the year... or maybe just go to Hawaii and watch them shoot my flick instead.

Last year on my birthday, there were no good movies opening. The big film that weekend was I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY. I don’t remember what the second tier movies were - but they were crap, too. The best new movie that weekend was SUNSHINE - playing in limited release. That’s what I planned on seeing... but someone ordered an extra round of beers at dinner and by the time we got to the cinema we were late... but there was a showing of CHUCK & LARRY in twenty minutes. You know, wouldn’t have been that bad if the film hadn’t just plain sucked. I expected Jessica Beil in her underwear to be a highpoint of that film - I didn’t expect it to be *the* highpoint.

So this year is automatically better - THE DARK KNIGHT. Tickets bought 2 weeks ago.

I am a huge fan on BATMAN BEGINS - that’s one of those movies on the shelf of films I’ll watch on DVD every year (I watched it last night to get in the mood for DARK KNIGHT). It’s my new example for Payback Lines in the revised version of my Action Book (I’m still working on). It’s that rare movie that is both a great mainstream popcorn film *and* a serious film about guilt and revenge and justice and responsibility. You know, a *good movie*. Without the funny costumes and big action scenes, it could play art houses. So I’ve been excited about the sequel since they announced it. And every image or teaser trailer or poster or clip has just gotten me more excited.

And it appears that I am not the only one. I predicted on some message board that of all of the summer films this year - and it’s a very crowded summer - the one movie I thought would be the biggest hit was DARK KNIGHT. I thought it would do better than the Indiana Jones movie (without having seen it). I had no idea IRON MAN would be so good. And my prediction was early enough that it may have even been before Heath Ledger’s death in January. BATMAN BEGINS was a good film that people were still talking about... and they couldn’t wait to see the sequel. Add the death of Heath Ledger and you turn this from *the* event movie of the summer into, well...

So the movie broke midnight show records with $18.5 million.... That would be a good opening weekend for many films, but this was just Thursday’s midnight shows!

Friday, the film broke even more records - $68 million on Friday. How is that even possible? Now, the funny part is that there were some predictions that it might make $100 million over the weekend - man, it was close to $80 million by the end of Friday!

The Saturday numbers are estimated at $48 million - I don't think that's a record, but last Weekend's #1 movie, HELLBOY 2, made $11.6 million on Saturday.

The weekend estimates are a record breaking $155.34 million... and that's just for the movie! Add in the popcorn and candy and sodas, and the meals before the shows...

So, I’m typing away on Saturday in a Starbucks in a shopping area that includes movie theaters and lots of restaurants. Same place I was typing last Saturday. Last Saturday the Starbucks wasn’t very crowded, and when I broke for dinner, I went into one of the nearby restaurants and was instantly seated - oh, and I some choices on tables. “Would you like a booth or a table?” “Can I get a booth in the back?” “No problem.”

Yesterday (Sat), completely different story. Starbucks is packed - and there’s a *huge* line. The people are coming in waves, though, with about half an hour between rushes. So I get a place to sit at Starbucks... and then spend the day watching the line expand every half hour. All of the restaurants in the area are *packed*. Lines waiting for tables. The shopping area is crowded, too. Oh, and the ice cream place - take a number and wait an hour! Now, last week these places were doing okay weekend business, but nothing like this. I mean, NOTHING like this. When I break for dinner, I have to walk far away from the cinemas to find a restaurant where I don’t have to wait... ends up being El Pollo Loco - and they seem to be more crowded than usual, too! I walk back to Bucks and have to wait for the cycle to end before I get a table... and quickly plug in the earphones and crank up the Goldsmith because everyone is talking about the bat man.

I’m wondering if this is happening all over the USA - people are going to see THE DARK KNIGHT as *the* movie they see this year... and they’re going out to dinner before the movie and out for ice cream or coffee afterwards?

You know how our economy was in trouble last week? I wonder if THE DARK KNIGHT is helping to pull it out? Not just the ticket sales, but the restaurants and food places and coffee shops and ice cream parlors and bars and... how many people bought something in one of these stores near the cinemas before or after the film? Will retail sales spike this weekend?

Okay, I’m going to see the movie in a couple of hours and later in the week I’ll report on it. And if it’s good, I’ll probably see it again in IMAX. And if there’s a slow weekend later on in summer... I may see it again. But I have to tell you - this section of town near the cinemas is PACKED with people.... and I wonder how many of these people will see it again? And whether one movie can have an impact on a nation’s economy?

PS: Thanks to everyone who e-mailed me, Facebooked me, MySpaced me, carded me, skywrote me, and wished me a happy birthday in some other way I forgot. I was really hoping that someone would send me Salma Hayek as a gift... but maybe next year.

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Breast, corn, black beans at El Pollo Loco.

MOVIES: TELL NO ONE - So, what is wrong with American producers? Don’t they know a good thriller? Don’t they want to make a good thriller? Why is it that all of the good thrillers are coming from France these days, and America is making crap? Don Westlake (the greatest writer alive) (and an American) wrote this amazing thriller called THE AX... and it was made into a film in France, by Oscar winner Costa-Gavras. Why the heck didn’t any US producers buy it and make it? Now, the big bestseller by *American* thriller writer Harlan Coben, TELL NO ONE has been made into a movie... by French guys! What is wring with the studios in this country? Why aren’t they buying and making these American thrillers?

TELL NO ONE is the story of Alex Beck (Dave in the book) and his childhood sweetheart Margot (Elizabeth in the book) who are happily married. On vacation they visit the lake where they first met... and Margot is *murdered* and Alex is knocked out. He wakes up to find himself a suspect in his wife’s murder... but the police eventually connect Margot’s murder to a serial killer... but they never stop suspecting him.

Eight years later, Alex still hasn’t gotten over her murder. He has never had another relationship, and visits Margot’s parents on the anniversary of her death. Margot’s parents think he should just get on with his life. Her father is a retired cop, and knows how traumatic an event like this can be (heck, it was his daughter who was killed), but even he thinks Alex needs to move on with his life. Problem is, Alex is still in love with her - always has been. Part of his lack of closure may be that he never saw his wife’s corpse - he was in the hospital recovering. Her father identified the body, and Alex missed the funeral.

On that 8 year anniversary of her murder he gets a strange e-mail... from his dead wife!

Meanwhile, the police have found two long-dead bodies at the lake where the wife was murdered... with evidence leading to Alex. The police want to re-open Margot’s murder case, thinking that these two may have been Alex’s accomplices (the guys who knocked him out to give him that great alibi). They want Alex to supply a DNA sample.

As Alex receives more e-mails from his dead wife, many containing information that only she would know, some witnesses and friends of his wife from the past are murdered... with evidence leading to Alex. Now Alex must go on the run to find proof of his innocence... and find out how his dead wife has access to a computer.

A bunch of critics are calling the film “Hitchcockian” - and I just want to know if those critics have the same IQ as the US producers who don’t buy thriller novels or think making I KNOW WHO KILLED ME instead of THE AX was a great idea...

Do these critics think Hitchcock = thrillers? If that’s true, what about all of the other great thriller directors? Are Fritz Lang movies Hitchockian? Are *all* thrillers Hitchcockian? If so, doesn’t that make “Hitchcockian” kind of a pointless made up word? Why not just say “thriller”? Fewer letters, more accuracy. And what about those movies like THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and MR & MRS SMITH (1941) and all of the other movies Hitchcock directed that are *not* thrillers? Are those not Hitchcockian, even though Hitchcock made them? What the heck do these critics mean when they throw around the made up word “Hitchcockian”?

When *I* think Hitchcock, I think *visual control*. Hitchcock was all about the image, the juxtaposition of images, and how they made the audience *feel*. Every shot in a Hitchcock movie was given great thought - is this the best composition? The best framing? The best angle? The best distance between subject and lens? The best lens? The best movement of the camera? The best... and how do all of these elements combines transfer the exact feeling I want to the audience? In the Hitchcock/Truffaut book he talks about everything from the Kuleshov experiment in editing to the use of the color red in MARNIE to the reason why the shot through the window of the 2 henchmen in THE 39 STEPS is the only angle that works - and the remake used a different angle and the scene loses all of its tension. Hitchcock selected every element of every shot for a specific reason - he controlled what you see and how you see it... and used the camera to tell the story. Since that’s 95% of what he talks about in Hitchcock/Truffaut, I would think that “Hitchcockian” means “visual control” or using the specifics of cinema to create emotions in the audience and tell the story. And the difference between a thriller that’s shot in a bland, pedestrian way (like my HARD EVIDENCE movie) and a thriller where the camera is used to tell the story and create emotions in the viewer (Hitchcock movies... and even French films like DIABOLIQUE) would be “Hitchcockian”. Hitch’s comedy, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, is Hitchcockian - there’s a shot of the dead guy’s *feet* that makes you laugh. The angle, the composition of the frame, everything in that shot is designed to make you laugh. Hitch made the feet look funny. That’s “Hitchcockian” to me.

(ASIDE: One of the things in Hitchcock/Truffaut that really got me thinking about how movies work when I read it as a teenager, was an example Hitchcock gives about a couple sitting at a table lit by a chandelier. Though the chandelier might have been established in a long shot, when we cut to a shot of the two of them sitting at the table, the chandelier may not be in the frame - even though it is still the source of the light. Problem is - the light without the chandelier might look artificial... so Hitch says you have to lower the chandelier until it shows up in frame - even though it is not naturally in frame. That way, the audience can see the source of the light, and the shot seems more real... even though it is not. What is important in film isn’t what is real, but what appears to be real - and you often have to change what is real to make it appear real on film... reality may look fake! The face may look real! The job of the filmmaker isn’t to shoot what is real, but to have what is shot look real - no matter what lengths you must go through to achieve the look of reality. The results are what matter.)

The problem is - film critics who have no idea what they are talking about, not even the basic knowledge of film, who somehow didn’t read Hitchcock/Truffaut (even though Truffaut was a critic when he did the interviews), people who are not qualified to do the jobs they are being paid for, who think any movie that is a thriller is “Hitchcockian”. Hey, if you want to use a word, have some idea what it means (or use some other word that you do know). And these guys are calling TELL NO ONE “Hitchcockian” when it is the exact opposite. The film is “Anti-Hitchcockian” - and it often looks like angles and camera placement were completely random... and editing is without rhythm... and nothing is designed with the intent to make the audience feel anything.

The director of TELL NO ONE doesn’t use the camera to tell the story - he just places the camera somewhere and lets the story happen... which isn’t the best way to make a thriller, but the story here is so strong that the movie works despite itself.

Two great stunt scenes are very realistic - when Alex runs across the freeway to escape the police causing a huge pile up - cars skidding close to hitting him - you wonder how they managed to get a crashing car so close to *the star* without killing him. Though CGI could have been used, it doesn’t look like it. France has that great precision driving team from RONIN and the BOURNE movies, so maybe they were involved in this. This scene, by the way, is right from the novel. The other great, realistic stunt scene I don’t remember from the book - and I suspect was an accident that they used in the film - Alex is running flat out, trips, and does a very realistic face plant on a sidewalk. You can’t help but say “Ouch!” outloud.

The thing that elevates this from just being another just thriller (Hitchcockian or not) is the love story aspect - and the end of this film is powerful due to the love story. Alex and Margot are soulmates - and the great flashbacks to when they were kids and first fell in love give this film a gravity and depth that stick with you long after the house lights go up. The tree where they carved their initials in a heart when they were kids... is still on that tree the night Margot is killed... and 8 years later when Alex is brought back to that spot at the end of the film. There are big emotions involved, here. By the way - the flashbacks to when they were kids? In the novel, though handled really well in the film.

One of the elements in the story (book and film) is a MARATHON MAN subplot element with some local thugs who become Alex’s little army when the police *and* the badguys are chasing him. A few of the reviews have mentioned that the actor who plays Alex (Francois Cluzet) resembles Dustin Hoffman - and that probably adds to the MARATHON MAN echoes.

British actress Kristin Scott-Thomas plays one of Alex and Margot’s friends, and she speaks fluent French and *acts* French in this film... it takes you a moment to recognoze her!

As strange plot twists mount and the bodies pile up, the mystery of Margot’s e-mail frm beyond the grave becomes more and more complicated... and you begin to wonder how the hell they’re going to come up with a solution that covers everything that has happened... and that’s when the film begins to go south. Because there are a half dozen crimes in the past that resulted in the murder of Margot... and the film sinks under the weight of too many backstories, We end up with kind of a Rube Goldberg explanation of what happened to a dozen characters who aren’t even part of the present story which lead up to this twist ending... But it’s like a half hour of backstory! The film just goes into reverse!

You know, scripts are written in the present tense... and a film story should move forward and be about things happening now - not things that happened a long time ago that result in big chunks of exposition. TELL NO ONE gives us the exposition and flashback combo - so we see all of these long ago things... but they are still long ago events. And there are *so many of them* that the whole film seems to be moving backwards instead of coming to a conclusion - for about half an hour. And just when you thought the backstories were all over... we get a *different* version of one of the backstories exposing a character’s lie. All of this is just too much - someone should have simplified all of this stuff and cut away all of the unrequired complications - there is one event that could have caused all of the present problems - we didn’t need every bad thing that has ever happened to Alex throughout his life to be explained... and part of some conspiracy! Make sure your scripts are about what happens *now* - not what happens before the film starts. (Yeah, CITIZEN KANE and MEMENTO... but those are the exceptions). You want to keep the story moving forward... and keep the backstory to a minimum.

But the very end of the film is saved by a flashback to the lovers as children - showing just how strong Alex and Margot’s love is... it has lasted beyond the grave. In a strange way, the end reminded me of another film critics wrongly called “Hitchcockian” - CACHE. That film had such a strong image (the suicide) near the end that you forgave all of the problems that came before... and here the unending love of two people makes us forget all of that backstory...

TELL NO ONE is a riveting story with some great plot twists... But the romance and story of undying love make it more than just THE FUGITIVE with a bunch of French people. If you can forgive the chunk of backstory tying up all of the story threads at the end, this is an interesting thriller. Note to US producers - why let the French guys make all of the great thrillers?

- Bill


Anonymous said...

Bill, I saw this film in New York, where it is selling out, even among us locals who don't speak a word of French. Not exactly Hitchcockian, but there is a Maguffin--the missing wife.

Good Dog said...


Hope you had a grand birthday and enjoyed the film.

Toward the end of last year, I think it was, Michael Caine was asked what his favourite movie of the year was and he came right back with Tell No One.

mrswing said...

That final half-hour revelation really ruined everything for me.

Not only is there zero suspense or excitement, the entire story crumbles under the complexity of the explanations for what happened. And - as so often in these type of stories, both in film and novel form - the solution to the story really destroys the suspension of disbelief.

So if anyone wants to watch this film, be prepared for the most unsatisfactory ending imaginable. On the upside, there is some impressive nudity from the wife in the film... :-)

wcmartell said...

Though I think our final image of the two kids saves the end, all of that 'splainin' just killed momentum for me - and the reveals weren't powerful - they were just kind of there. I think they could have simplified the backstory and even made it *powerful* by hiding Rochefort as the villain instead of giving it away, and playing up the great relationship between wife and Rochefort, so that the reveal would be shocking. The *wife's killer* could have also had a less complicated backstory - story upon story! And the double backstory was just too much.

There are things that work in a novel that don't work on film because they just take too danged long.

- Bill

Richard McNally said...

Today's SS is outstanding! I have been in sore need of exactly what you produced. It goes into my permanent Martell file, along with your Rewrite Checklist. Belated bon (bonne) anniversaire! Your good will toward all, in an industry teeming with self-centered sharks and self-aggrandizing cretins who would sell the floor out from under their mothers in order to screw a competitor and move one inch upward, is nothing short of historic. Altruism lives!

Laura Reyna said...

TELL NO ONE sounds interesting. Must rent the DVD.

Yeah, Hitchcock is all about the camera & the shot. Everything is thought out, meticulous and 'just so'.

I admire that, but at the same time find it distracting. Ideally, I like the camera to feel a little freer, less self-conscious.

When i watch a Hitchcock movie I'm always disracted by the technique when I want to concentrate on the story, char & emotions. Consequently, most of his movies leave me cold & unsatisfied.... that, & they move too slow.

Please don't hate me.


Morgan McKinnon said...

"Your good will toward all, in an industry teeming with self-centered sharks and self-aggrandizing cretins who would sell the floor out from under their mothers in order to screw a competitor and move one inch upward, is nothing short of historic. Altruism lives!"

I can't begin to tell you how much I agree with you there Richard.

However, what really pisses me off beyond, rage...

that I'm advised to construct a query letter to such a person, and quietly beg them to show interest in my work.

That makes me sick.

Morgan McKinnon said...

Let me make myself clear. I'm speaking of constructing a letter to..."the self-centered sharks and self-aggrandizing cretins who would sell the floor out from under their mothers in order to screw a competitor and move one inch upward."
That's what makes me sick.

I just didn't want anyone to think I was speaking of Bill. Nope. Bill is great. And that's the truth!


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