Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bill's Little Movie Experiment (Part Two)

Okay, the first experiment is the cliffhanger format - kind of sequencing, but with a big twist near the end of each sequence where the hero is in all kinds of trouble and you have to come back next week to find out if and how he gets out of it.

The way I plan on shooting the film is also an experiment. Real movies are filmed all at once - and the bigger the film, the more weeks they take to shot it. A big studio film may take a couple of months of shooting... usually 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. My HBO movies usually shot in 4 weeks, 6 days a week... sometimes over 12 hours a day. The network MOWs and some of the other cable films shot in 3 weeks, 6 days a weeks, 12 or more hours a day. Low budget features (even some cable movies like Showtime’s old Rebel Highway Series) shoot in 2 weeks - 12 days, and often more than 12 hours a day. And I’ve had some “quickies” shot in 9 days straight - which is a week’s worth of equipment rentals with 2 weekends. When it comes time to schedule a film, it’s all about the most bang for your buck. Since part of the experiment is making this film for as few bucks as possible, my plan is to shoot only on weekends.

Equipment houses often have weekend deals, because most of their business is commercials and industrials - which is Monday - Friday schedules (just like a real job, because it is). That leaves the equipment sitting on the shelves on weekends, so the Equipment house usually has a weekend rate - Friday night until Monday morning, often for the price of one day. That’s a deal! It also works well when the other two guys involved have day jobs. Flexible day jobs, but still day jobs. And it will be easier to find a pick up crew on weekends - they have jobs, too.


So here’s how I plan on filming this - and it directly impacts the screenplay - Six weekends, with 14 minutes/pages shot per weekend. On a crazy 9 day shoot, you have to shoot over 9 pages a day. That’s a lot of pages! The problem is, I haven’t shot anything in years, and even though I will be completely organized with shot lists and sketches and storyboards and whatever else - 9 pages is a lot of pages. I don’t think I can do that; and even if I could, I don’t think the average person who buys my book about making your own movie could do that. You need a well-oiled movie making machine of a crew to pull that off. People that have been doing this for years and can shoot a movie in their sleep. That is not us. So for this to be a “fair” experiment, I’ve decided we’ll aim for 5 pages a day.

I figure if we’ve done our preproduction, we can shoot 5 pages a day with a limited amount of stress - maybe even have a good time while we’re at it. 5 pages a day is still work, and my guess is that some of those days may be long (more complicated scenes), but I think we can make it work and have time to do some cool shots.

The plan is to shoot 5 pages on Saturday, 5 pages on Sunday... and a weekend rental is pick up Friday evening and return Monday morning... which means there’s Friday night! 4 pages/minutes on Friday night - that will probably be all at a single controlled location. I’m thinking 2 scenes, 2 minutes each... but some Fridays might be four one minute scenes or a three and a one. Some combo that adds up to 4 pages.

All of this impacts the script, because I will need 6 locations with 4 pages/minutes at each that will be spread throughout the script. These things have to be built into the script in te outline stage. Also, the easier these scenes are to shoot, the better the chances that they will actually get shot in those few hours after picking up the equipment on Friday night. It will be easier to shoot 4 minutes of dialogue based scenes in the limited amount of time on Friday night than some complicated action scene. It will be easier to shoot indoors where we can set up lights quickly than outdoors - because it is night - where we will have to light the darkness. But because it *is* night, some of these Friday scenes may be night scenes. And it’s possible that one entire block may be driving around in a car stealing establishing shots at night - lighted areas, of course.

The cool thing about shooting digital is that we can set up lighting with a consumer camera before we pick up the rental camera. One of he guys has a high end (HD) consumer camera. We can even rehearse with the consumer camera... and when we actually start shooting? That consumer camera is back up - we shoot everything with the big HD camera and the consumer camera (at slightly different angles). On SLAUGHTERHOUSE MASSACRE a consumer camera saved the film - part of the story had a character videotaping what happened... and the method actor actually hit the trigger and taped during the scenes. In editing, when there wasn’t some shot or not enough coverage (that film was a nightmare of bad planning), they could cut to that camera POV. Though the picture quality on our second camera won’t be as good as the big HD material, it may save our butts to have that footage if something goes wrong. If you don’t have a high end consumer camera, anything you can use as back up is better than having nothing. So Friday will be hell, but we can be completely ready to go when we pick up the camera and blast out 4 pages before bedtime.


Part of the plan is also to trade off directing - so one person will be in charge on Friday, someone else in charge on Saturday, and someone else on Sunday. Then we alternate, so that every third week I’m doing a 4 page Friday. I think this will help keep us all fresh over the weekend - instead of being responsible for directing 14 pages, I will be responsible for directing 5 pages (or 4). I can focus on those 5 pages and really try to make them the coolest and most amazing 5 pages possible. One the other 2 days I am a crew member - maybe the Director of Photography or the Gaffer (light guy). I’ll be making a creative contribution, but I won’t be in charge. I won’t be responsible for those days, and everything I do will be to help John or Van put their creative vision on screen.

When I’ve worked on other people’s films, and the pressure isn’t on *you*, you can just do your job... and maybe even come up with some interesting ideas or shots or bits that help the director. On a friend’s short, one of the other crew guys came up with a cool thing for the shot - added a spider and spider web to one corner of the room - which made the scene twice as creepy. The director was busy thinking about all of the other elements in that shot, so the crew members spider web was a *bonus*. If today is my day to be the Gaffer, I might come up with a cool idea or interesting lighting that will make the scene even better than any of us planned. And I hope trading off directing duties will keep it fun as well. No one will get stressed out because they are responsible for 14 pages a week.

Because Saturday and Sunday are full days, they can be more complicated. We’re doing a chase thriller, kind of like 24, so we’ll be doing action scenes and fun stuff on the full days. Since movies are not shot in order, it’s not like we’re shooting a 5 page segment in one day... just 5 pages of scenes that will cut throughout the film. From a script standpoint, that means we have our 4 page Fridays at an easy location, and 5 pages of more difficult material at a potentially more complicated location on Saturday, and the same on Sunday. That may sound confusing to write, but what you do is just figure out the story, then plug in the locations where you want to shoot... and use those same locations until you hit 5 pages (or 10 pages or 9 pages, etc.). So, if I do a 3 page suspense scene at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, I also have to do a 2 page scene there, too. I’ve done this on a bunch of low budget films, and the second scene can be anything from a cop at the crime scene to a crook returns to the scene of the crime to an earlier scene that sets up the location (maybe a dialogue scene or a romance scene).

And just because we are shooting at one location on Saturday doesn’t mean that is has to be one location. A room can be redressed to become another room. An exterior location may be across the street from another exterior location. And because Saturday and Sunday are full days, one location may be different between day and night. By day it has some features, by night completely different features. So the 5 pages at one location may not seem like 5 pages in the same place.

I think the real key in any low budget film is the script. Bad films start with bad scripts. Hey, that’s the one thing we control! So I plan in spending enough time on the script to make sure it works... most of the bad low budget films I’ve seen have huge script problems that probably could have been solved if they’d just taken more time working on it. People are anxious to make the movie, and rush the writing. The last thing you want to do is film your script, *then* realize the script needed work.

Part Three

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character In Conflict and ROCKY BALBOA.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fried rice at City Wok... There was a line halfway down the street to get into Nolan's in Toluca Lake, so I just drove past. Did I really need the corned beef & cabbage? No.
Bicycle: No bike today - I ran errands.

- I saw LAST HOUSE last Tuesday at the premiere (another red carpet), and it is good news/bad news: If you are a rabid fan of the original, the bad news is that this is the mainstream version of that story. You have to go in knowing that this is going to be that R rated, toned down, mainstream version... not like the X rated completely brutal original. It's not going to traumatize you for life like the original. It *is* going to use various household items to kill people in sick ways... within the R rating.

The good news is that it's a pretty good thriller that turns into kind of a family version of TAKEN in the last half - and with TAKEN still running strong after over 5 weeks, maybe it’s time for the French film to be replaced by a movie based on a Bergman film.

That’s right - the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was based on a Bergman film called THE VIRGIN SPRING about simple farmer parents of a murdered girl who take bloody revenge on her goat-herder killers when they seek food and lodging at their farm. The original LAST HOUSE added sex, drugs and rock and roll... and the Manson Family (sort of). A pair of high school girls on their way to a concert stop to buy some weed and end up the prisoners of Krug and company - some completely depraved criminals recently escaped from prison... and are tossed in the trunk of Krug’s car... Which, coincidentally, breaks down near one of the girl’s house. Krug and company take the girls into the woods and do unspeakable acts to them before brutally murdering them... Then go back to the parent’s house to take shelter from a storm. When the parents discover these people killed their daughter, they secretly set out to get revenge - feeding Krug and company dinner as they set up booby traps around the house designed to kill them.

The new version makes a lot more sense, with swim team star Mari going on vacation with her overworked doctor father (Tony Goldwyn) and over-organized soccer mom (Monica Potter - giving an Oscar caliber performance in what could have been a throw away role) at their lake-side house in the woods. Though everyone is trying to have a good time, there is a weight hanging over the family - this is the first time they have been to the lake since the death of their son. Mari (Sara Paxton), borrows the SUV so that she can hang out with her townie friend Paige (Martha McIsaac) - who was a lot funnier in the Carl Ellsworth draft I read. Paige accepts an offer from a cute boy she doesn’t know, Justin (Spencer Clark) to go to his motel and smoke some pot. Mari reluctantly comes along... and when the boy’s psycho father, Krug (the brilliant Garret Dillahunt, who plays Chromarte on SARA CONNERS) and uncle (Aaron Paul) and trippy squeeze Sadie (Riki Lindholme) arrive unexpectedly... the girls become hostages. Krug has just escaped from the police, is on the run, and needs a vehicle the police aren’t searching for... and Mari has her parent’s SUV. She will drive them through any roadblocks and get to a side road out of state.

But she drives them toward her parent’s lake house, then crashes the car and tries to escape... but Krug and company catch the girls...

And here is where the remake is most different than Wes Craven’s original. That first version of LAST HOUSE was rated X, and absolutely brutal. Take the worst, most vile, brutal, disgusting, sick thing you can imagine that Krug and his thugs could do to these two girls... and in that first version, what they do is much much worse. No one could ever imagine this. People, humans, can’t imagine actions like this. And that was the strength of the original. It showed you things that once seen, could not be un-seen. You were *traumatized* by that film.

Adding to that was a sense of realism - this was Wes Craven’s first film. It is not some slick Hollywood movie - it used documentary techniques because hand-held cameras were cheaper than dolly tracks and cranes. The film was crudely shot, and that made it seem *real*. So, those traumatizing images seemed like they really happened... You just wanted to vomit, and I’m sure many people did. It was raw, sick, brutal.

The fans of the original will think the remake is wimpy - a Hollywood sell out. And it is. You can’t remake that original scene today. So, what we get is a way way toned down rape, and a murder that is casual but not as twisted and brutal as the original...

And here’s where things get strange - if you go to Rotten Tomatoes and read the Top Critics, you will read a bunch of bad reviews that talk about how disgusting the rape scene is in the new version. I am a huge fan of Patrick Goldstien’s column in the Los Angeles Times, but he came at this film with guns blazing - comparing the rape scene to a violent first person pedophile rape “game” from Japan. I don’t think he had actually seen the film when he wrote this column - he’d just read all of the other reviews. Ebert also focused on the rape scene in his review... even though back in the 70s he gave the original 3.5 stars.

Actually the rape and torture scene in the remake is *very* tame compared to the original LAST HOUSE. In the original, one of the girls was sliced open and many of her internal organs were made external and shown to her as she slowly died... shown to *us* as well. This scene in the original pretty much traumatized me for life.
The new version's rape doesn't even come close to the rape in DELIVERANCE, and it serves the same story purpose. The DELIVERANCE rape scene has Ned Beatty begging and trying to crawl away and being caught and trying to escape again and, of course, squealing like a pig. The scene went on *forever* - and they rip off his underwear and brutally rape him... laughing the whole time. And John Voight has to watch... knowing that he’s next.

In the remake of LAST HOUSE, Krug slams her to the ground, tears off her clothes, *lowers* her panties (doesn't rip them) and then rapes her. It *is* a disturbing scene - and meant to be - but this isn't the protracted struggle from DELIVERANCE. I'll bet the LAST HOUSE scene is maybe a third or a quarter as long as the DELIVERANCE scene. Now, both are disturbing - not glamorized and not sexual in any way. The LAST HOUSE scene is designed to repulse you - to make you hate the rapist, so when the parents want to get revenge, so do you.

So why the controversy? Why is a this wimpy replacement for the original’s traumatizing scene getting all of this flack?

I believe it is because the scene works. The rape scene is disgusting and horrifying and not glamorized in any way... even though it is not even near the original, it is extreme. The scene makes you feel... sick. And it is *supposed to*. So when the critics were affected by the scene, they trashed the film for making them feel.

As someone who has seen the original recently, I thought the scene wimped out. I didn’t think it was bad enough to justify the revenge that follows. Because where this new LAST HOUSE drops the ball is in not having any Ronny Cox character (from DELIVERANCE) to question the concept of revenge. Because this version of Krug and company aren’t the crazed psychos from the original, but a group of pretty standard criminals. I though the biggest problem was the casting of Aaron Paul - who looks like a pretty boy actor, and his character is calm... All of these bad guys are *reasonable*. The original Krug and Company were just so crazed and unpredictable you thought they should be put down for the good of society. That mad dog from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD looks like that cute puppy version of MARLEY compared to Krug in the original.

Revenge is a nasty thing, and the LAST HOUSE remake needed the voice of reason that the Ronny Cox character brought to DELIVERANCE.... and the guilt epilogue from that film would have also been nice.

But it wouldn't matter - because the rape in LAST HOUSE remake is not particularly graphic. The violence *afterwards* - the violence that the *parents* serve up on the rapist and his crew - *is* very graphic. But for some really weird reason, there is no discussion of that by the critics (except Ebert). I suspect that is because none of the critics saw the original... and were not traumatized for life like I was.

Once we get to the revenge element, it is not served as cold as in the original (where the parents calmly feed them dinner) nor are any chainsaws used nor penises bitten off and spit out. Instead, the new version is more self-defense that bobby-traps and torture.

I have always thought of Monica Potter as a “replacement actress” - when Ashley Judd drops out of a movie, she’s the replacement. Kind of a placeholder. But in the LAST HOUSE remake she gives a great, layered performance. There is a scene after she realizes what these people did to her daughter where she must have a conversation with Aaron Paul and make it appear as if she is being a gracious hostess while we see her fear underneath that, and her anger underneath that. It is a creepy and frightening conversation and Potter manages to keep all of these emotions swirling around.

In the Bergman film, the father prays for forgiveness before he takes his revenge. Like the original LAST HOUSE, the father in the remake is a doctor... someone who is sworn to save lives and do no harm... but there is no moral discussion in either film. The original’s killers are so vile, and the daughter’s rape and Paige’s murder so disgusting that anything would seem justified. In the remake, the rape is less traumatic and the villains less crazed... and that makes the parent’s punishment *not* seem to fit the crime. And without any prayers for forgiveness or questions about whether it is right to jamb a claw hammer into another person’s head, the revenge seems like overkill. (Call me sick, but my favorite part was the musical sound the claw hammer makes in one scene.)

By the way, the draft of the script I read had a bit of dialogue that sets up the end... which is missing in the film, and appears not to have been shot. I suspect they were cut out in a later draft or cut by the director because somebody thought that dialogue “telegraphed” the end... except without that set up, the end makes no sense (and people have been complaining about it). Devo Folks - unusual things *have to be established* or else they don’t make sense. They are usual! And you have the whole movie between the establishing lines and the end of the film when that thing is paid off. People will forget.

The new version works well as an R rated thriller of revenge - and may take the place of TAKEN in the top 5, same kind of vibe - but it’s not even close to the brutality of the original. You will not be traumatized for life. And that may be a good thing. You can go to see the new version of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and take a date... without feeling like Travis Bickle taking Betsy to that porno theater.

And if you are a fan of the original? The DVD is still there whenever you want to be traumatized for life again.

- Bill

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