Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gary Winick on "Tadpole"

Why did you decide to shoot Tadpole as a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: There's the economics of it, which is obviously a big deal. There's the time factor, which is actually a bigger deal, and there's the fact that now actors and distributors will take low-end digital filmmaking seriously. It's not discriminated against at all, in terms of getting actors or in terms of distributors wanting your film."

How did the cast react to being in a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: Not only were they open to digital, they were actually curious and looking forward to it, because digital is a performance-oriented medium. Sigourney Weaver said, 'I hear it's like a hybrid between theater and film and I want to try it.'

How did you come up with the idea to use Voltaire quotes between key sequences?

GARY WINICK: I had a really, really, really unfortunate experience with my cinematographer on this movie. The camera wasn't on sometimes, so I'd get back to the edit room and the script supervisor had these shots that said that I shot, but yet they were never recorded. I had focus problems, camera operating problems.

When I got in the editing room and found out that my DP/Operator did such a poor job, I was left with some really hard, clunky ways to get from scene to scene. And that's when I came up with the Voltaire quotes. So it came out of necessity.

I went to Barnes & Noble, because I'm not an Internet guy, and went through some Voltaire quotes, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is going to work great.'

How did you come up with the story and the script?

GARY WINICK: We came up with the characters first, and then thought of what sort of situation that we could put them in that would support a low-budget, 12-day shoot.

When you're making a low budget film, you really only have one focus, and that focus is story. Because costumes and lighting and design and all that stuff, you can never either afford it or have the time to do it right. So you really have to focus on the one thing that you know that the audience is (hopefully) going to respond to, which is the story and being engaged with those characters on screen.

I have 84 million dollars now for
Charlotte's Web, and I have huge effects, and computer people, and Stan Winston and all this stuff … but it all comes back to story.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Noonan on "What Happened Was ..."

What was the genesis of What Happened Was ...?

TOM NOONAN: I had never written a play. I'd written a lot of movies. So when I original wrote What Happened Was ..., I was going to do it at the theater, but the intention was to do it as a film.

I always thought of it as a screenplay, and because I'd never acted in something I'd directed, I thought, 'Well, if I do it on stage for a while, in front of an audience, I'll find out what the thing's about.' And, because I was acting in it, I wanted to make sure that we'd worked out all the acting parts before we shot it.

We did it for six weeks as a play. We rehearsed for a month and a half. And then, on the last night of performance in the theater, we took out all the chairs, and we shot the script in the theater -- I'd made the theater look like an apartment. Then, for the next six months after that, before we shot the film, we rehearsed pretty regularly. We rehearsed for eight or nine months before we shot, a couple times a week.

That's a lot of rehearsal.

TOM NOONAN: My general rule is that either you rehearse a lot or you don't rehearse at all. If you rehearse the middle, you end up not being authentic and kind of looking like you are.

When I finally shot the film, they would say, 'It's your close-up, Tom,' and I'd say, 'Okay,' and I'd just sit there and just talk. It wasn't like I was acting; I'd done it so often and what was going on seemed so real to me. I didn't have to worry about learning the words or learning the blocking or doing any of those things that you have to worry about when you're doing a film. It completely went away. It was just me, just being there. So it felt very real to me.

The movie is relatively simple when you first look at it, but it's actually got a lot of sophisticated stuff. The camera moves are all perfectly timed to counts. By the time we shot the film, everybody in the crew knew the count on every dolly move, on everything. It was very choreographed.

There's an amazing cut in the film, early on in the date, when he accidentally touches her, and it's a very quick cut ...

TOM NOONAN: There are very few cuts in the film, so when you put a cut in like that, it's very powerful. I knew that was the case and I shot it with that intention of possibly cutting it in.

There's a moment when you're sitting down in a chair, from standing, at which point it's impossible for you to stand back up again. And I find that kind of moment very dramatic.

What happened in that moment was I reached out to her with the intention to reassure her, because she seemed really nervous. And at that moment, she turned and I inadvertently touched her, not on her butt, but close, without meaning to, because I'd already started the motion and by the time she turned, it was too late to stop.

When we did the play, we rehearsed that moment over and over and over again, for days, the timing of it. Because if I touch her too soon, there's no way that she can bend over; and if she bends over, and then I touch her butt, it looks stupid. It has to be perfect.

Have you ever locked your keys in the car and as you slammed the car door you see the keys on the dashboard but your arm keeps going because the signal hasn't gotten there yet?

That's the moment I was trying to create. It happens all the time in life. I knew the wide shot wouldn't get it, and if I covered the whole thing close you wouldn't get it, so I decided to do this wide shot into an insert, to create this jarring, embarrassing moment.

It took a lot, a lot of work, rehearsing for months to get it to seem real. And we would do that for hours on end, I'd reach and she'd turn, trying to make it seem believable. It's very difficult to do that and not make it look phony.

How did live audiences react to the script when you performed it as a play?

TOM NOONAN: People were very uncomfortable, because we were pretty good at acting it. Part of the problem, during the play, was that people got so uncomfortable -- because it was like being on a first date with somebody that was not going well -- that people really didn't want to be there.

And part of what I would try to do during the play, and in the movie, was to not make people so uncomfortable that they didn't want to watch. I wanted it to be funny and make them engaging enough and compelling enough that you'd stay with the story even though it was painfully awkward.

There were times when I was doing the play when I could tell that the audience couldn't wait for it to be over, because they couldn't stand how awkward it was for the two of us. They just wanted me to leave and let this poor woman go to bed.

One of the great lessons I learned doing it was that the story of a movie does not have to depend on the story of the script. What I mean is, there were nights when we would do the play when I could tell that the audience hated me.

And there were other nights when I did the play when I could tell that the audience thought, 'Oh, this poor guy. He's being manipulated by this woman, who has invited him into her apartment on her birthday, and is setting him up to be disappointed.'

And other nights, again, people would go, 'This smarmy, condescending, asshole guy is just playing with her like a bug.' And it would change, night to night, and the story would be very different.

I learned a lot doing the play in front of people, because that's something I wanted to have in the movie. At times you think, 'God, this guy is such a jerk,' and other times you think, 'God, why doesn't she give him a break?'

The narrative of that script can hold a lot of different interpretations and different stories, without giving away that he's the bad guy and she's good.

It's really both all the time, which is what life's like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos on "The Last Broadcast"

How did this project begin?

LANCE WEILER: Stefan and I got excited about the prospects of being able to edit on your desktop, so we got the board and started messing around and built some systems and then started making this movie almost as a lark, to see how little we could make it for. And that's when we came up with the idea and the storyline for The Last Broadcast.

STEFAN AVALOS: We came up with a very detailed outline and we did script out a lot of scenes. But then we decided to basically do a question-and-answer role-playing game with a lot of the people for interviews. We would give them the answers to the questions and then we would keep asking them the questions in various ways, and sometimes ask them questions that they did not have the answers to. We would give them only as much information as their character in the movie would have. And since we were shooting in video we would just let the camera roll, and we were able to get some great performances that way.

LANCE WEILER: We wrote it knowing what we had access to, which I think really helped to keep it low cost. Everyone in it are friends and family. We knew that if we cast ourselves in it that we were guaranteed to show up. And we knew that we would work cheap. We also structured the movie so that we would be shooting and doing a lot of the sound work ourselves; a lot of the movie consists of us actually on-camera and holding mics in the scenes. So I think it was a very conscious effort to try to work within the limitations that we had. Stefan had already made a previous film, The Game, so he was well-versed in guerilla techniques and we applied a lot of those to the making of the movie.

STEFAN AVALOS: We joked that the first thing we tried to get rid of when we made this movie was film, shooting digitally, and the second thing were the actors, because you have to feed them and hope they show up.

None of the people in the movie were professional actors, so we didn't really want to script their stuff, we thought that wouldn't work at all. Including ourselves; I didn't think that I'd be able to pull off a serious acting role requiring scripted dialogue. But it was very tight improvisation; we knew exactly where the story was going to go--the beginning, the middle, the end--so it wasn't like we were just winging it on set.

A lot of people thought it was a real documentary when it came out ...

LANCE WEILER: I think a lot of time it's the details that convince people. There were things that would happen that helped, almost accidents. Everyone brought different things at different times; like the way Tony (playing a cop) put ATF on his shirt that day.

STEFAN AVALOS: We call it Theater of the minimal. The psychologist is a friend of ours who does high-end carpentry. But we brought some psychology books, just a couple little things here and there --

LANCE WEILER: And that birdhouse.

STEFAN AVALOS: Yes, the cuckoo clock birdhouse. It's amazing how little it takes to convince people. Which is something we were commenting on in the movie: What's reality, what do you believe? And I found it amazing how readily people believed the movie, based on just a couple little pseudo-realities within the movie. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers were perturbed by that.

So was the low budget a blessing or a burden?

LANCE WEILER: Not having any money made us be more creative. I think sometimes there's a tendency to fall back on money as an answer to a problem, where we found ourselves brainstorming and trying to find ways to make things work without the money.

STEFAN AVALOS: Having no money and really spending no money gave us a carefree attitude that I've never had before or since making movies. We didn't have a producer breathing down our necks concerned about a budget that was spiraling out of control. It's ironic that no having money gave us that freedom.

LANCE WEILER: I remember the shock when we totaled up the receipts, to see what the budget at the end. We rounded up, but it was very close, maybe within 28 cents, of $900. And that was the first time we really knew what we had spent.

STEFAN AVALOS: We had wanted to make a movie for no money, but we missed the mark by 900 bucks.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

L.M. Kit Carson on "Paris, Texas"

What was going on in your life before Paris, Texas happened?

CARSON: We did Breathless, so I'd done my first Hollywood film. I do these diaries whenever I make a movie and they were published in Film Comment, and as I said at the beginning of the Paris, Texas diary, after Breathless I was not exactly hot, but I was lunch. So I went to lunch a lot and was offered projects, and none of them was anything that I really wanted to do.

At the same time, my son had gotten cast in Paris, Texas, so I got to know Wim very informally because of that. So while I was doing lunch with all of the studios and executives from all the different agencies and all that, I was watching the progress on this. I knew that they had gotten started and that there was a stop date on the talent involved, so they had to launch. There was a stop date on Harry Dean and there was a stop date on Nastassja Kinski, so they had to start shooting.

They went off and started the beginning of the movie, down in Texas, in an area called The Devil's Playground in the desert. Wim was out there for two weeks and had come back. I wandered into the office one evening to see how it was going, and he was at his desk with his head in his hands. I said, "What's the matter?" And he said, "We have shot the beginning of the movie. It sets up this great mystery, and then the script explains it all away. And I don't want to do that."

He said, "I want this movie to be about love, a movie in which love triumphs at the end, but it's not sentimental."

That was the thrust of the movie, and he'd shot the opening mystery, the first 20 minutes of the film. And then he didn't like the rest of the script. I asked him what the script was like, and he said, "There are two versions."

One version was that Nastassja's father was a big Texas oilman, and his goons had gone and beat up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a penthouse.

The other version was Nastassja's mother was under the thrall of a televangelist and, of course, he ran heroin dens and whorehouses, just like all televangelists do. His goons came and beat-up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a heroin den/whorehouse.

And I said to Wim, "Those are kind of corny." And he said, "Yeah."

And I said, "What if they did it to themselves?"

And he looked up and he said, "Exactly."

Sam Shepard had, he explained to me, gone on to In Country, the film where he met Jessica Lange, because he and Wim couldn't get satisfied with the scripts. And so Sam just sorta said, "You figure it out. I'm outta here. I gotta go do this movie."

So Wim said to me, "Give me the weekend, I'll call Sam and tell him that I want you to do this." And I said, "Okay, but I'm going back to New York this weekend, I'm stopping in Texas first to see my folks. You call me by Sunday and tell me in which direction I'm going to continue going -- either back to LA or on to New York."

So I didn't hear from him, I didn't hear from him, and on Sunday night, at the last possible minute when I was about to go get my ticket and get on the plane, Wim called and said, "Come back."

So I came back and they resumed the shoot, and I stayed two weeks ahead of the shoot with new pages.

Did you have a sense while you were making the movie of the impact it would have and the status it would achieve?

CARSON: No. It was really just a bunch of guys driving around Texas in pick-up trucks making the movie. There was nothing that seemed important going on. We were not shooting a film that was going to win at Cannes. It was just a bunch of guys trying to do something.

Brilliant collaborators: Production designer Kate Altman -- brilliant. Cinematographer Robby Müller-- brilliant. And the actors are all brilliant. But it was wide open in the sense that all we were doing was serving the movie. There was nothing else going on except trying to figure this out.

I remember that the movie had a budget of about $750,000. That's probably not the official budget, but that's I knew we had. I was paid, partly, I was given a '57 Chevy Bel Air, with the fins. That was part of my pay. Nobody was paid anything, really, on this movie.

You look back at it now and you say, "How could you guys do something this good without any luxury at all?" But the intention was so high; there was nothing in the way of trying to do something honest and out of your heart.

Is there anything that you learned working on Paris, Texas that you still use today?

CARSON: Silence. I learned that.

The first part of the script was Sam's and it was full of silence. I found out about the power of silence from thinking about that over and over and over again, and thinking about how the characters relate to each other. There's a lot of silence in this movie and it's very powerful.

I've learned and applied that to everything else.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

George Romero on "Martin"

Where did the idea for the story come from?

GEORGE ROMERO: Initially I was thinking of doing a comedy. I just got one of those ideas that comes to you in the shower: If there really were vampires, they'd have problems living hundreds of years. They'd have to keep changing their passport photos, they'd have all these practical problems. So I wanted to do a comedy about the practical problems of a vampire in today's age.

I had started to keep a notebook on it. One day it just occurred to me that I could do this a lot straighter and I could do a thing about somebody who's not a vampire at all.

I just thought that that would be more -- not romantic -- but it would be, in a way, more of a tender story and a whole new spin that was not comedic. I wanted to just spin a vampire yarn a bit differently and leave the door open as to whether he is or is not a vampire.

You left it open for the audience, but did you decide going in that he wasn't actually a vampire?

GEORGE ROMERO: The decision that I made was that he was not. In my mind, Martin is not a vampire, he's a kid that's been fucked up by family and mythology and movies and whatever else has influenced him. You just have to make that decision in the dark room somewhere and keep both doors open.

Like your other films, Martin isn't really about what it appears to be about on the surface. It's not really a vampire movie, just like Night of the Living Dead is more than just a zombie movie. They're really more reflections on the times we're living in.

GEORGE ROMERO: That's what I try to do. I try to use the framework and use the genre, because first of all it's the easiest way for me to get financing. Really all my films are people stories. Even at the heart of
Night of the Living Dead, it's really about the people and how they screw themselves over and can't get it together.

I like that theme tremendously, the lack of communication, the idea that people are still working their own fiddles and have their own agendas even faced with sea changes in the world.

I also like that "monster within" thing, which is in the zombie films and in
Martin to some extent. Even in a couple of the things I've done that Steve King has written. The ones that I'm drawn to are those, like The Dark Half.

Martin is even sympathetic in the sequence where he goes to kill a woman and is surprised that her lover is there, which is a remarkable scene.

GEORGE ROMERO: That's my favorite sequence. I think it's the most successful sequence I've ever done.

I like its complexity. It's a very complex situation and you have to be watching the movie closely to get everything that happens in it. But what I like the most about it is the execution of it. It's very close to what I had on the page and I was able -- again, because of the small, dedicated crew and all their cooperation -- to do it, make all the shots. There are a hell of a lot of shots in that sequence. And the geography is clear, you don't get lost.

You can't do that sequence without a lot of shots and these guys moved fast and we got it. It was great. I still think it's maybe the best-executed thing that I've ever done.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rebecca Miller on "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits"

What was going on in your life before Personal Velocity?

REBECCA MILLER: I had basically given up, at least for the time being, the idea of making films, because it was so hard for me to get my films made at that point. I had made one film, called Angela, which had won the Filmmaker's Prize at Sundance, They've discontinued the Filmmaker's Prize; all the filmmakers voted on their favorite films, the ones in competition.

Angela did well with some critics and things, but it didn't make money. It was a very uncommercial film. And then I had written The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was something I would make later, and I wrote another film that collapsed in pre-production. So I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn't want to just wait and wait to make films and tell stories. All I did all day was write these screenplays that nobody seemed to want. So I decided to write short stories.

My friend Gary Winick called me. He was making this series of films for the Independent Film Channel. He had come to them with this idea that he would make ten films a year for a million dollars, but what they ended up giving everybody was a $250,000 budget.

He asked did I have anything, did I want to make a film on mini-DV for that much money? And none of the films that I had already written were really right for that, because I figured (and I was right about this), that you'd have to tailor a script for that medium and for that budget; you shouldn't just take one of your script and try and turn it into that kind of shoot.

I was sick of writing screenplays that no one was going to make, I said, "If you want to look at the stories that I'm writing, I could maybe do something out of one of them." So I gave him a few stories from the collection and he read them and he really liked them. He ended up giving them to Caroline Kaplan, who was running InDigEnt with him, and they ended up green lighting the film. It was also Gary's idea to use three stories at once and make a trilogy, and when he said that my mind took off.

The thing that's great about Gary is that he really insisted that I feel completely free. At first I was sort of checking with him and saying, "I'm doing this, I'm doing that," and he was like, "Look, do whatever. The point is that we want to get filmmakers who have experience and who we believe in to feel free."

And so I wrote the script for Personal Velocity in about two months. It took me about two years to write the book, and I knew what everybody in those stories was feeling and I knew the characters from top to bottom, so writing the screenplay was mostly about finding the form and the structure.

How did you decide which of the three stories to use?

REBECCA MILLER: I chose the ones that were the most dynamic in terms of action, where there was conflict that was externalized, because some of them were very interior. And also where I thought that there was a good clash; like I thought there was a very good clash between Delia, which is a story about a working-class woman struggling with an abusive marriage, and Greta, which is about an upper-middle class woman struggling with the clash between her own ambition and a marriage which is feeling increasingly stultifying, and finally her ambition propels her out of her own marriage.

They both involve crisis, but of a different order.

And then, class-wise, Paula is kind of a floater, because she's an artist, she's from that class although she doesn't really produce anything, but she's in-between the two classes.

At what point in the process did you decide to use narration?

REBECCA MILLER: I always knew I was going to. The narration was built into it.

Early on Gary had said that he loved the way the narrator spoke in the stories and that it would be a pity to lose that. And I also thought that with the three stories, I thought it would be a good thing to link them together. And it also gives you a lot more freedom, because we're jumping back and forth through time constantly. And the narrations also carries a lot of the humor. It's a sympathetic third voice.

In the end there was a whole debate about whether or not to make it a male or female voice. I always knew that it was meant to be a male voice, but then there were some people who saw it and said, "You can't make it a male voice; it's about women."

But I just ended up really liking the male voice, because I thought it differentiated itself from the other voices. Otherwise, it was just another's woman's voice, it was like a soup of women's voices, and I thought it was good to have the male voice.

Also, I thought it was kind of optimistic to have a male voice, it seemed to be sympathetic and unjudgmental of this of these women while some of there struggles were against men, and it was my overriding view, my own point of view, which is that it's very possible to have sympathetic males in your movies.

How did your background in acting help the writing process?

REBECCA MILLER: I think there's a really big advantage to have been an actor when you're the director, because you have more of a sense of what the actors might need and help them keep it all natural.

In a way, the film isn't naturalistic at all. It's like a poem, in a way. But the way that it's happening and the way that it's shot leads you to believe that it's naturalistic. It's a funny combination.

I think that acting was a very necessary step for me. I had a weird, long apprenticeship, in that I was a painter for quite a while and then at a certain point realized that I wanted to make films.

I acted for about five years while I was writing my first screenplays and still painting for some of that time -- it was like a bridge. Without the acting I don't know that I would have been able to successfully make that leap -- when I was a painter I was so far away from the mindset of being a filmmaker and being more sociable like that and thinking about what it's like to be on a set where there are so many people. I just learned all sorts of things, just how it works, what a film set's like.

One of the problems with being a director is that you never get to go on sets -- even if you go to film school, you don't usually get to be on sets when you're coming up. You learn when you get on your own set, but it was nice to just understand certain things, to have been around directors. For writing it probably helps, too.

You're writing to shoot, and that's what's important to remember. And I really remembered it with Personal Velocity. That screenplay was really tailored, it was absolutely tailored to the medium. I don't think I even cut any scenes out; there was no waste in that thing.

You shot what you wrote.

REBECCA MILLER: I shot what I wrote and I kept what I shot. Which is really unusual. Usually you end up realizing that there are internal repetitions that you didn't notice. But this was all done in a spirit of such economy, so I was very conscious of not wanting to shoot anything extra.

We had no overtime, so we had to finish our days, and we had no extra days. So there was no leeway at all. If you weren't making your day, you had to start cutting scenes. And there was on occasion where I did have to cut a scene, which was completely unnecessary and I think in the end I would have cut it anyway afterwards.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

REBECCA MILLER: I'm sure I did. I'm usually kind of tweaking things until they get said. But I do really believe very, very strongly in having a very, very strong script, then you can throw it out. The thing is to have a really strong script and if you are the director then to fool yourself into thinking that you didn't really write it and that it's somebody else's. Then you can be totally irreverent with it and throw it out.

It's a blueprint, it's only a blueprint, but at the same time, if you're really well prepared, then you can always change everything. It's when you're not prepared, I think, that things get really scary.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chris Kentis on "Open Water"

Why did you decide to do a digital feature?

CHRIS KENTIS: That was the whole reason we wanted to do the film. We were really excited about the technology that was out there, and truthfully, kind of inspired by the Dogme 95 films. We just wanted to get out there and experiment with this new technology.

Right after we made our first feature, Grind, which was made in much more of a traditional way -- we had a crew and shot on 35mm and all -- our daughter was born. So we were excited about trying to make a movie in a very different way. The idea of working without a crew, the idea of being able to take our time (which meant working on weekends and vacation times), being able to include our families. Also the idea of collaborating with actors in a certain kind of way.

We were really anxious to try to make a movie in a different way, to try to stretch and challenge ourselves creatively.

You said that being able to take your time was important. Why? What's the advantage of taking your time?

CHRIS KENTIS: The first advantage of taking our time was that I was able to work full time and help finance the film. Another advantage is that movies tend to be rushed, especially if you look at the things coming out of Hollywood today and the schedules.

Ironically, two of my favorite filmmakers were not very prolific: Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. I think there's a lot to be said for taking the time to get it right, and I think most films don't really have that advantage. It's a process of refinement.

How tough was it to keep the ending the way you wanted it?

CHRIS KENTIS: Not tough at all, because that was the whole point of the project. To not have to answer to anyone. None of the choices were made because they were the most commercial choices; they were made because this was the film we wanted to make.

Because the film was based on a true story, that was going to be the ending from the get-go, from day one. Now the specifics of what happened to her evolved during the course of the process, but there never was going to be any other ending.

To the credit of Lions Gate, and all the distributors that were interested in the film at Sundance, it was never questioned.

I'd say that the majority of people really responded to and loved the ending, and yet there's this perception out there that you always have to have a happy ending. It's interesting how that happens.

In the 70s, I think it was more common for the main character to end up dead, even in a romantic comedy often the main character would end up with a tumor and die. That's the other extreme.

The whole impetuous behind this story was when I read about the true incident, it deeply affected me, and so it was to try to capture that. To have the audience have the same kind of emotional response that I had when I read the story. You can't help but ask, 'What if that were me and Laura? What if it were us?'

Our hope was that when people watch the movie is that, hopefully if the audience is with the movie, they'll ask themselves, 'What if that were me? What would I do in that situation?' and experience it that way.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Kenneth Lonergan on "You Can Count on Me"

What was going with life and your career before You Can Count on Me?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Before that I had been making a living as a screenwriters probably for about five years. I was making a living writing screenplays, doing pretty well, but my main interest was playwriting, which I was doing mostly with the Naked Angels theater company. I had just had my first big break in playwriting, with my play This Is Our Youth. It was very well received and it bumped me several levels up instantly, which is very unusual. So I had just become a sort of off-Broadway playwright with some cache, and I was already basically a Hollywood screenwriter of comedies.

Where did the idea for You Can Count on Me come from?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It came from an assignment that my theater company had given. We were doing an evening of short plays based on the subject of faith and I was poking around for something to write on that topic and I had the idea of this brother and sister. I wrote a ten-minute scene with these characters, which basically was the first step in writing the screenplay. But whenever I say that, I then read that "He adapted it from his own his play." But it was, honestly twelve pages long and it was never meant to be a full-length play. As soon as I thought of it as a larger piece it was immediately a screenplay.

And that scene is still pretty much in tact, right, as the first scene where Terry and Sammy meet in the restaurant?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It's that plus the scene at the end. Literally. Minus the note of hope that he expresses when he tries to tell her that he's not going back into the toilet, he actually liked being in Alaska and maybe there's something there for him. Although some people have interpreted the movie as him going back into the depths, and other people have noticed that he actually was a tiny bit of a step up from where he started.

What was it about those twelve pages that made you think you had the beginnings of a feature script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I loved the characters, a lot, and I thought the scene was really very good. And when it was performed it was performed really nicely and I just thought there was something very moving about the situation. I guess I liked the idea of how crazy she was about him, and the whole dynamic of her having more faith in him than he had in himself. Even though she's a little misguided about him, just liking him that much brought him up a little bit.

And I liked the idea that they were at such cross-purposes, but also that they liked each other so much. And also the idea that they had had this shared tragedy and her reaction was a sort of blind faith and his reaction was more closer to mine, which is that it has no meaning but you have to piece together your own feelings about things like that, because none of the available systems really did if for him. He feels that is less deluded and less involved in fantasy.

Just the kind of double-sidedness of her having faith in this bum, just because she liked him, and then him kind of living up to it a little bit more than he might have if she didn't have that faith. I just liked that whole dynamic. I liked her taking care of him and him disappointing her -- all the dynamics between them. I just liked the people a lot.

Once you had the story, how did you proceed? Do you write an outline?

KENNETH LONERGAN: I almost never do an outline. I've done outlines for assignments, and even then I think I've only done them twice. I have nothing against them, I just don't usually work that way.

For You Can Count on Me, I split the lunch scene up, because I knew that the last part of the scene would be the last part of the movie.

I had, at one point, a whole different ending. Originally the last scene was going to be the scene with her and the little boy at the kitchen table. But then, once it was all written, I realized that it really should really end with the brother and the sister. So I made that adjustment.

Their affection for each other is the main thing that creates the tension, because if he's not her favorite person in the world, there's no conflict when he starts to endanger her kid, because that's a pretty clear choice.

So I realized that there has to be a series of disappointments that he creates that involve the kid. I didn't really bother to think what they were at first, I just knew that there should be about three of them and that they escalate. So I didn't know that he was going to take the kid to see his rat-bastard father at the end; but as it developed, she had a husband who was gone and that turned into another element. It all sort of folded into itself in a way.

Were you always planning on directing this script?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it.

Did that change the way you wrote it?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Completely. I had been aware of what professional screenwriting was like in Hollywood many years before I got into it. I got into only to make money, because I knew there was no creative protection.

This was the first screenplay that I ever wrote the way I would have written a play, meaning putting my heart and soul into it. Every other job I'd done, including the spec script for Analyze This, I definitely did as good a job as I could, but I wrote knowing that the script would be destroyed. And I wouldn't have written You Can Count On Me if I'd known it would be destroyed; I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't planning to direct it, and I knew the only way to protect it was to direct it.

The only reason it occurred to me to direct it was that I have two friends -- one at my professional caste level and one much fancier than me -- and they both had very little trouble directing their first movie. I realized that it probably wouldn't be that hard for me to do it, either. So that's what I set out to do.

I knew that if it was an independent movie that I would have a fairly good chance of controlling the material and I also knew that I wouldn't do it if I couldn't control the material.

Did you think about budget concerns at all while you were writing?

KENNETH LONERGAN: No, I didn't. There's no call for anything expensive in the story anyway. I might have thought about it a little bit, in the periphery of my mind, but not really. I knew it would be cheap.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

KENNETH LONERGAN: The only thing I changed in production was I did a little bit of cutting and re-wrote the last scene a little bit, because I felt it wasn't clear what his feeling was about going away.

How do you know when a script is done?

KENNETH LONERGAN: It feels right. I always feel that the ending must be at least as good as the rest of the movie. If the ending isn't great I feel like it's not a successful endeavor. I feel that if I have the right ending than that's a big help. And then I feel that if there's nothing else that I can work on and improve, then I basically leave it alone. You can always futz around with it, but unfortunately there's a certain point when I start rewriting it that I start making it worse. Thankfully, I think I've learned to identify that point and then I leave it alone.

When you get out of the groove of it, I really think it's dangerous to mess around with it too much. I tend to rewrite myself a lot as I'm going, but not endlessly. I find that a lot of writers are either too ready to rewrite stuff, which is dangerous because they just get lost instantly. I know I do. New writers are way too eager to take other people's comments and show it to everyone and get all the feedback they can get.

The feeding frenzy in the movie culture now to have everyone dive and anyone can give a note, I just find it repellant and very bad for the scripts and for the audience, ultimately.

The other thing that writers can do is not be self-critical enough. I think you have to be very much on your own side but be very unflinching about noticing when something's no good. You have to be able to step away and step back, but basically trusting your own opinion and hoping that if you like it somebody else will.

I think the rewrite frenzy is just appalling. It's shocking; I'm still shocked at 43 at how cavalierly people think it's okay to just chatter away about something someone's worked on for two years and the assumptions behind it. Personally, if I'm writing a screenplay for somebody else, I would get it to where I think it's good, but I wouldn't go one step beyond that, because I know it's going to be ripped to pieces no matter what.

Basically, you sell it, you get hired, and they first try to get you to destroy it. Then you don't destroy it enough and then they fire you and get someone else to do it. That's never not happened to me, except when I was the last destroyer on Gangs of New York. But that was a little different, because even though there were script changes that I would not have done if I was making the decisions, in the end I feel there was an artist making the movie and making the decisions and getting other people to help him shape what he wanted. It's a little different when it's a rotating committee of people who don't know how to do anything, which is what it usually is.

Did you learn anything writing You Can Count on Me that you still use today?

KENNETH LONERGAN: Yes, but I didn't learn it enough. In the editing, the first cut, I thought every scene was very good but the whole thing dragged. The problem was that every scene had a beginning, a middle and an end. So I chopped the beginnings and, more particularly, the endings of every scene, and suddenly the story propelled itself from one scene to next much better. That's because it didn't have 200 little soft resolves. So I've been trying to think about writing in sequences instead of scenes, but the truth is I haven't really applied that, because it's very hard for me to judge that on the page. It's something I know can be dealt with in the editing, so I can't say I actually have the faith to write a really short scene.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Actress/Writer Susan Coyne on “Slings & Arrows”

How did Slings & Arrows come about?

SUSAN COYNE: Well, I hadn't really set out to be a writer. But, I hit my late thirties, and I had two children and I couldn't travel across the country in the same way. And, famously, the parts thin out a bit as you get older. So I sort of hit my mid-life crisis and thought, "I'm just going to sit down and start writing," without really knowing where it was going to lead me. And then I got hooked up with somebody who said, "You know, I have a friend who works at Stratford and loves hearing your stories. Would you like to come up with a proposal for a TV series about Stratford?"

So I said, "Sure. I can do that." And then I came up with the premise for the series, basically, although at that time it was a half-hour comedy. We shopped it around and we got wonderful producers, Rhombus Media, involved and they put me together with Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, which was really kind of brilliant.

That was an interesting choice.

SUSAN COYNE: He was not the first person you'd think of pairing us with, but it was really great because Mark is so smart and really thinks outside the box constantly. He's worked a little bit in theater and so he knew something of this world as well. He said right away, "This isn't a half-hour, this is an hour, because there's too much good material here."

I think that was one of the most important things that happened, because we thought, “We're doing Shakespeare, we don't want this to be just punch lines and then cut to a commercial. We want to be brave about this and tackle what it's like to do these big plays.”

I'd never seen something like this done very well. I'd often seen actors made fun of, and it's easy. It's easy to satirize actors. I think we do it to a degree in the show. It's also easy to sentimentalize. But between those two extremes I've never seen anybody try to really show what it's like, and that in some ways it certainly matters to the people who do it and it might even mean something to those of us who watch. It might have some value, it might have some weight to it, it might not be a silly thing to do with your life. And that these people might have some passion that has some dignity to it.

Even as I say that I'm always cautious not to give it more weight than it's worth, but I think that when theater works well, everybody recognizes that there's something very powerful about it, transforming and ineffable and not silly at all. It's rare, but when you see it, there's nothing like it. You feel a little bit wrung out afterwards and your heart's beating faster and you feel chemically altered in some way.

It's that we wanted to get at: What is that thing that happens and how do people achieve that? We wanted to show people the kinds of conversations that go on in rehearsals as well as how terrifying it is and the ridiculous things we do to get ourselves where we have to be. All of that.

I always think that when there's a great deal of passion, then there's got to be some kind of dramatic or comic story. Or both.

How did Bob Martin get involved?

SUSAN COYNE: Bob was invited to join Mark and I after we had been wrestling with the series for a couple of years (in the midst of doing other projects- in my case, co-founding a theatre company and writing my first book). Neither Mark nor I had written a TV series before, but Bob had. His experience was the key to making us into a fully functioning writing team.

When you started the project, did you think it would only be for one season?

SUSAN COYNE: Exactly. Mark and I worked for a couple of years, because we were both doing other things. And it took a long time to figure out how this was going to go. We had six episodes in mind, we knew the play was Hamlet, we came up with the idea of the ghost and that our character was going to be a sort of Hamlet figure who was haunted almost in the same way that I was haunted by my theater school teachers. The ones who said those wonderful things and those terrible things, and you're always trying to prove something to them even if they're dead.

It turns out that three is a good number for a writing team, because we could always gang up on the other person and persuade them. The three-legged writing team is quite stable, actually. If you can't quite see something, one of the other two can explain it to you. And also Bob had real experience writing television in a way that Mark and I didn't. And he also has an amazing comic sensibility and a really delightful wit.

So when that came together the work started to go faster and we decided that six episodes would be really satisfying to tackle Hamlet. And that really was the plan until we finished it and watched it. The network said, would you like to go another year? And we looked at each other and I said, "Well, I think we should do a trilogy. If we're going to another one we should do three and we should do youth, middle-age and old age." That made sense to us and felt like it would be a satisfying arc.

We had the idea that, each season, we wanted to watch our characters through the filter of the play -- not in the way that you could draw straight lines between the stories and the play, but in a sort of general way being influenced by Shakespearean themes.

One of my favorite scenes in the series -- and one that really lays Shakespeare out and explains what's he's doing -- is the scene in the first season when the director, Geoffrey, explains to the actress playing Ophelia exactly what her "nonsense rhymes" actually mean. Did you find that there were scenes you created based on things you'd actually experienced?

SUSAN COYNE: There were. But some of them are so disguised that they take on a difference resonance. For example, Geoffrey reminds me of a director I worked with early on who directed me in The Glass Menagerie. He was a refugee from the Second World War, a Holocaust survivor. His family perished and he escaped to Winnipeg. He talked to me about how theater had saved his life, and it meant so much to me, the way he talked about it. It was a life force for him.

I guess there's an element where I've worked with really great directors for whom theater has saved their life. And that passion for its humanity -- for the idea of theater being a place where we can be very human with each other -- is something that I've retained and I always aspire to in the theater. The idea that it's about people communicating; there's no tricks, there's no cinema, it's just us. We're all in the same room breathing together, and if it all works out, we'll all end up having the same heart-rate at the end of the show.

Were you saddled with handling the female point of view on the show and the female characters or was that shared?

SUSAN COYNE: Oh it was definitely shared. Martha Burns, who plays Ellen, is one of my closest friends. We've known each other a long time, we grew up in Winnipeg together, so I loved coming up with storylines for her, like Ellen getting audited. But we all wrote the Ellen character and we all wrote the Anna character.

I loved aspects of Anna, but the boys, actually, I think loved Anna even more. They loved putting her in these terrible situations. The scene where she had to have sex, Mark wanted it to be really explicit and hardcore, and I finally said, "Look, guys, it's me playing the part. So let's just re-think this, shall we?"

And that's when Bob said, "Well, we could do it in the dark." I said "That sounds very good."

Do you have any special or favorite moments from the series?

SUSAN COYNE: I loved everything to do with Bill Hutt in the third season. I was in a production of King Lear with him, at Stratford in the young company, and he is a hero of mine. He's gone now, and his Lear was never filmed. So to get the little bit that we get of him, doing the great speeches, that I feel proudest of, actually.

That is the most important thing to me about the series: that we got him. We always wanted him; we wanted him in the second season and he wasn't available. But we got him in the third season. And then within 18 months he had died. So it was amazing. He was such a wonderful guy and he threw himself into it. I loved that.

Other than that, there was a tiny moment, backstage in the second season, between Geoffrey and Ellen, where they're watching Romeo and Juliet. And Ellen says, "I hate this play." I must say, watching Romeo and Juliet as a middle-aged person, you watch it and you think, "I hate this play." I mean, I love it of course, but you're in such a different headspace from the first time you played it, you can't help thinking, "What, are you nuts?"

What did you take away from the Slings & Arrows experience?

SUSAN COYNE: I learned a lot from working with two other people whose sensibilities were similar to mine, but who also pushed me ways into places I otherwise never would have gone. Although we fought a lot at the beginning, we got into a place where it was much easier to say, "Here's a sketch of the scene, but you should write it because you have that voice down better." It became very respectful -- and although there were still fights, they were good fights; not pulling in different directions, but creative fights -- where you just knew that the other person, it was just their thing and they could write it better. And you knew that when it came time to take over another scene, they would say, "You should have a go at that."

I think that's hard to replicate, when you have developed a working relationship like that with people.

As for the acting, that was more intimidating. Film is socially so different from theater. You don't have an audience; the only person who's actually watching your performance is the director, because everyone else is watching other things, like how your scarf is tied. So I found that a bit intimidating.

But there was a very collegial feeling, and we had so many theater actors coming onto the set, and so it felt much more about the work than it usually does. That was very freeing for me, because I've always felt that I'm very uptight on the set and never felt very free. And so to be with this wonderful team, on a series that you created yourself, playing this lovely character was wonderful. I adored playing Anna.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Carol Littleton on "The Big Chill"

I love this movie and I think the first reel of The Big Chill is one of the best first reels in movie history. Everything is set up so nicely.

CAROL LITTLETON: Right. All the characters are introduced.

Let me ask -- and this is just because I've always been curious about this -- William Hurt walks into the church in that reel just at the Minister is saying, ".... a man like Alex." Was that juxtaposition in the script or was it found in the editing?

CAROL LITTLETON: That was found in the editing. We could have had those entrances anywhere, in any order. Obviously he was the last one to arrive. We did cut the minister's speech down some, it was a little bit rambling. And it was just more salient to have the line over the Bill Hurt character, Nick, as he sits down.

Was that film similar to Body Heat, in that you found a lot of it in the editing room?

CAROL LITTLETON: It stayed closer to the script than Body Heat, because it was not a thriller. So we didn't have to deal with elements of timing that are alive on film but on the page are sometimes hard to judge.

But we had other things that were equally difficult, and that was how to integrate the music into the scenes and have it make sense. We discovered right away that we would not have a score, that it would be just the music from Motown stuff and things that were popular in 1968-69.

There were only two tunes that were in the script that we did to playback. For the rest of them, I cut the music and then cut the picture to the music. That was, essentially, doing it backwards. Those were not needle drops that we did after the picture was done and we just added it. It was all integrated as we were going.

I had probably 150 tunes that were in my editing room, on a rack. I would try a lot of different things until we found the right tempo and the right piece. Of course, Larry (Kasdan) is very knowledgeable about rock and roll and that era, because he was in college then.

So most of our editorial time went into the stylistic elements of making the film. Making the music choices seem seamless and making it flow from one song to the next, so that the lyrics and the tempo and the musicality of the scene matched. Like I said, they weren't needle drops; everything was cut to the tempo of the music and re-arranged in such a way that the lyrics fell at certain moments that were salient moments in the film.

So you're kind of doing it backwards; you're literally laying the track out and putting the picture to it, rather than cutting the picture and just dropping the music in. It makes a very big difference in the flow of the film, the musicality of the film, the style of it. The style of the picture is, in fact, very musical. So those were the challenges, editorially; it was really questions of style more than anything else.

Do you have a favorite moment, where it all came together?

CAROL LITTLETON: Yes, I think the episode that was very, very difficult was with the character of Meg (Mary Kay Place) who wants to have a baby. And when Glenn Close figures out that she could put her husband with her best friend, well, it's a little preposterous. This was before artificial insemination, so if you were going to have a baby, you actually had to have a partner. We knew that it was a little far-fetched and if the audience lost it in the movie it would probably be with that episode. The humor had to play a large part in allowing the audience to feel that it was appropriate and slightly goofy and also believable and tasteful.

So I think that whole section, with Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman," that whole section into the next morning, I felt really worked well for me. The night before, during the night and the next morning.

Let's talk about one of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the ending flashback, with Kevin Costner as Alex, that was shot but then cut from the movie. How did that come about?

CAROL LITTLETON: You could talk to five or six different people who worked on the movie and you'd get several different opinions. But being on the inside of that, the ending that Larry and Barbara Benedek wrote was to have a large flashback at the very end of how all these people were -- the roots of their personalities, the roots of who they were going to be -- were actually evident when they were students.

After I first read the script, we sat down and I said, "I feel very uneasy about this flashback. I just don't think you need it." And Larry with his nasal, West Virginia voice, said, "Carol, I can't believe you said that. You are so wrong. I can't believe it. You are so wrong." So I dropped it. When somebody says you're wrong, you drop it.

When we were shooting it I said, "This looks like a masquerade, with everybody in long hair and beads." And Larry said, "Carol, you are so wrong. The reason I wanted to write this script was because of this idea." And I said, "Yes, Larry, you're absolutely right. It's a wonderful idea. You may have needed that scene to write the script, but you don't need the scene for the movie. At all." "You are so wrong, if you mention this one more time!"

Well, in the editing, we put that flashback everywhere. We took it out of the ending, we put it up front, we put it in the middle, we put it in pieces, we spent a lot of time trying to get the flashback to work.

We showed it to the studio with the flashback and the suits came in -- Larry and I were the only people from our end -- and the guy who was in charge said, "This is not funny. Take it back, re-do it. I don't know what you guys are thinking, this is a comedy? This is bullshit. Start over again."

Well, we were devastated. Devastated. We knew it was funny, we knew it was engaging, we knew it was emotional.

And then he said, "While you're at it, that flashback is a stinko scene."

So we showed it to them the next time with an audience and the movie still did not work as well as it should. So I said, "Larry, why don't we devise an ending, drop the flashback, have two screenings -- one with the flashback and one without -- and let the audience tell us which one is more effective?"

Well, at the screenings, it was clear that the version without the flashback was better. And the next day, when Larry came into the cutting room, he said, "God dammit, Carol, I wanted you to take that thing out from the beginning! How many times do I have to tell you I'm right?"

That's how funny he is. He's wonderful.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Nancy Morgan and Rance Howard on "Grand Theft Auto"

How did you first hear about Grand Theft Auto?

NANCY MORGAN: My agents were contacted by Ron! Can you imagine? The reason for that was when he was casting for this role he was for someone who, first and foremost, he didn't have to pay a lot. It couldn't be a star -- it had to be an unknown. At the time, one of my first movie that I'd ever acted in -- in fact, one of my first acting jobs ever, because I came to Hollywood untrained and unprepared -- was a movie called Fraternity Row, with Paul Newman's son, Scott Newman, in his first and only picture. And it was out in the theaters when Ron was casting and he liked my performance in it and found my agent.

What was the audition like?

NANCY MORGAN: Back then I used to say to myself, 'There are a lot of people here who know a lot about acting, but all I really know is that you just have to pretend that it's happening.' And so, during the audition process, I did as close to what I felt a human being would do under the circumstances, and that was to say the lines like I meant them, and then when Ron was talking to me, react to what he was saying. And that's all I knew -- that was about as much acting as I knew.

Ron later said to me, 'You know, I interviewed a couple hundred girls. Did you ever wonder why you got it?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Because you were the only one who, when you weren't speaking, was still listening.'

Because that was the only thing he told me, that was something that forever stuck with me as one of the things that was important and not everyone's top tool.

Did you handle any of the stunts yourself?

NANCY MORGAN: If you're a good driver, and you're a little bit fearless, you're going to do some of that stuff, because it makes it more exciting and real. So when those shots of us going, "Whoa!," I'm driving. When you see the car stop suddenly along the freeway, and fishtail along the edge, or start up really fast, it is me driving.

What I didn't do were any of the really long shots from the air -- those were all done where you can't see the people inside. The scenes where we're just talking were frequently towed. But I did a lot of driving.

Did you rehearse much?

NANCY MORGAN: The cars rehearsed. The stunts rehearsed. And the explosions rehearsed. We basically just had to know our lines and pretty much bring it to life. We would run through the scene once or twice, but really rarely for the acting of it. Ron knew what he was doing, so he didn't really need it. And every scene I was in was with Ron, so it was like, 'Could I do it? Did I know what I was doing or not?'

When you're hiring a young actress or actor and you know you're not going to have a lot of rehearsal time, you better do your best to get the person that you want to see, as opposed to the great actress who will be able to bring Paula to life. So, it's just me, saying the lines and trying to bring some life to them.

Looking at the script, there appeared to be a thousand interchangeable scenes of Ron and I in the car, talking about this and that. I understood enough about story to know that it had to build and climax and resolve. And so the first thing I did with my script was to break it down into an outline and had an understanding of where Ron and I were in our relationship, from the first scene to the last.

Ron, on several occasions -- since he was in charge of the whole picture, directing everything -- he realized that I had done this and that I was aware of where we were in the script at any given point in terms of his and my relationship. He would sometimes say, 'Where are we?' And I would say, 'Well, this has happened and this has happened and this has happened, but this hasn't happened yet, so we do know about this but we don't know about that.' And he's say, 'Okay. Got it thanks.'

My breaking it down was something that I could do that was helpful to him and that would orient him as to where we were in the scene, and then Ron just acts -- he doesn't even to have to worry.

RANCE HOWARD: Ron had acted in Eat My Dust, and it had been a huge success for Roger. He wanted to do another car chase/car crash film. Ron said, 'I will do another movie for you, with one additional job added.' And Roger said, 'What is that?' And Ron said, 'I want to direct. And Roger said, 'Well, Ron, you always looked like a director to me.'

Now the question becomes, what is the movie?

Who came up with the title?

RANCE HOWARD: Roger already had the title. He had tested it. It was going to be called Grand Theft Auto, and it was about young people on the run. He said, 'If you and your dad could come up with a story like that, we'd have a deal.'

So we sat down and put our heads together and started kicking ideas around. We did a treatment first; Roger read the treatment and loved it and we went right to script.

Why a Rolls Royce and the demolition derby?

RANCE HOWARD: We thought the Rolls Royce would be the perfect automobile for the girl's father to have, and then she would take his car because he had, in essence, taken her car. And then we'd put the car through all the punishment we could, in order to get back at her father, and then finally wreck it at the demolition derby.

I was fascinated with the demolition derby. At one time, Ron, Clint and I went to see a demolition derby, and it was just fascinating. At that time I had considered writing a script about a demolition derby. Then with Grand Theft Auto, it just seemed perfect for the car to end up in a demolition derby.

How was it for Ron working with his father and his brother on the movie? I'm guessing it's okay, as he's done it in just about every movie he's made since then.

I think any director likes to use people that he is familiar with and that he can trust and has confidence in. Both Clint and I fit nicely into those categories. And his mother, at that time, had been working quite a lot coordinating extras for other filmmakers. And so she coordinated a lot of the extras for that film, in particular the senior citizens on the bus.

Involving his mother, and his brother Clint -- an excellent actor, and who was at that time, almost as big a name as Ron -- in the film just made good sense.

We had been feeding the crew Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch every day, and they were getting close to a mutiny, because they didn't appreciate having Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch every day. And, of course, the reason we were doing it was the most reasonably-priced thing we could give them.

Ron's wife, Cheryl heard about our problem, and she said, 'Let me cook lunch. Give me the budget that you're spending for the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I'll prepare a hot lunch for the crew.' And I said, 'Cheryl, you don't want to do that.' And she said, 'Yes, I do. I can do that.'

She enlisted the help of her grandmother, and they prepared lunches on that budget that -- if you run into any of the crew to this day -- they will comment on what great food Cheryl provided for that shoot.

What's the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?

RANCE HOWARD: Stand up for what you believe in. For example, if we had allowed ourselves to be easily talked out of it being a comedy and cut it as a straight action picture.

You need to be tenacious; you need to stick to your guns, but at the same time, you have to be prepared to compromise and negotiate. That was really driven home to me, the importance of compromise. There are a lot of aspects of making a film where you can compromise. In some places, you can't. You need to know what compromises can be made and what compromises can't be made.

Coming to that realization is important: understanding that you're not going to get everything you want, you're going to get part of what you want.

Filmmaking is a team effort, it's really team work. We happened to have a great team.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Edie Falco on "Judy Berlin"

You've known the writer/director of Judy Berlin, Eric Mendelsohn, for a long time -- over 25 years. At what point did you become involved in the project?

EDIE FALCO: Usually he'll wait until a script is finished and then give it to me to read, which is what he did. After I read it and told him how much I loved it, he said 'I would love for you to play the part of Judy.' I was flabbergasted, because he had not said a word to me about it.

You didn't realize that he was thinking of you for the lead?

EDIE FALCO: I've read everything he's ever done and given my feedback, so I assumed that that's what this was.

What are the advantages of working with someone you know so well?

EDIE FALCO: A lot of the films I've done I've done with friends and family. The advantage is you go in there feeling no obligation to prove yourself. There's a camaraderie and a trust that is inherent in just all of you being there together. It makes all the difference in the world. It's like raising a child, I imagine. They become what is expected of them. I know they trust me and I trust them. It gets that all out of the way so we can get down to the work.

Eric took the interesting approach of keeping you and Barbara Barrie (who plays your mother) apart before your scene together. Did that help add to the awkwardness of the scene?

EDIE FALCO: It sure did. Although I thought it was just a matter of scheduling. I thought, 'All right, I won't meet her until the day we shoot.' That's the way these things are. I think in retrospect it did help.

She was a woman around whom I was unfamiliar. You hold your body differently, eye contact is different than with someone that you're comfortable around. I think physically the relationship that Judy and her mother had sort of mirrored that of strangers. In that regard, the subconscious stuff that was already taking place probably only fed what was happening in the script.

Is your preparation any different when you know you're going into a low budget project?

EDIE FALCO: No, not at all. Really nothing about my preparation or involvement is any different on anything I do. The only thing that varies is, if I read something and I like it, I'll do it. If I read something and I don't like it, I won't. Once I've decided I'm doing something, I approach everything exactly the same, whether it's a play or a movie or a low-budget movie or a big budget movie. It's irrelevant.

What's the hardest part of working on low-budget movies?

EDIE FALCO: You get a lot of directors who are nervous and they don't trust themselves or they don't trust the process. So, they might end up doing a lot more takes than they need, as if the actor is an infinite source of these things. Because at a certain point I know I'm not doing work that I'm proud of anymore, I'm just exhausted. And they are just too afraid to say, 'Okay, let's move on.' And so you'll do another four, five takes, and I start thinking, 'Oh, this is not what I meant to do, this is not the take I want.' So that's a little rough.

I wonder if I'd never done bigger budget stuff, perhaps I would never have noticed the difference. But once you start doing things where they put you in a nice trailer, and you've got people running around and taking care of you, when you all of a sudden have to change clothes in the back of a Chevy again, you think, 'You know, this does kind of stink, come to think of it. I would prefer to be in a trailer right now.'

So I don’t know if I've been a little bit spoiled by some of the bigger budget stuff. And you realize there's a reason you're taken care of, because you want to show up and do the best you can each time you're out there. It does help to be rested and warm and all that stuff.

What are the advantages of working on a low-budget project?

EDIE FALCO: There are so many advantages to working on a low-budget project. I feel a totally comfortable with the idea of trying something and having it not work. I feel a sense of freedom to just go for it, because money is not at the forefront of everything that goes on in these things. You don't have a producer standing over you saying, 'We gotta make the day!' Everybody's just flying by the seat of their pants and I feel a sense of freedom that I don't when money is being talked about. You feel the energy of these big-budget things.

Also, on a big-budget thing, there are a zillion people working on it. Oftentimes nobody knows who anybody else is and they don't necessarily care about their job, they're jus trying to get enough days so they can become an AD.

On these low-budget things, everybody's there because they want to be. They know the director, they love the work of the director, they're a friend and he needed a helping hand. You know you're not going to make money and you know it's going to be hard work and you're there because you love it. And that is infused in every moment you spend on the set of a low-budget movie. It's been my experience that nothing but good stuff will come out of that.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Joan Micklin Silver on "Hester Street"

How did you find Abraham Cahan’s novella (which was the basis for the screenplay) and what attracted you to it?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: One of the films that I made for the educational film company was on immigration. I read just about everything I could find on immigration and one of the things that I read was the novella by Abraham Cahan called

I was really floundering around and wanting very much to make my own films. My husband, Ray, who was a real estate developer, told me that if I could do a film that would not cost very much, that he would try to raise money from some of the investors that he'd been going to for real estate deals. And that was how we did it.

Frankly I didn't think I'd ever get to make another film. I was pretty discouraged about it all. My family were immigrants and I wanted to make a movie that would count for them.

Was the story in the public domain at that point?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Yes. And that was one of its attractions.

What challenges did you face in the adaptation?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Well, the story itself is more the husband's story. I think what grabbed me about it was what happened to the wife. So it was really just telling the story from the point of view that interested me. The challenge of it, of course, was to try to make it authentic.

I felt that because my father had told me so many stories about his life as an immigrant boy from Russia, I knew that language was a huge factor in getting along or not getting along. He told me stories of not quite knowing English and once leaving some money on a bus; he was a paperboy and he had made some collections and left the money by accident on the bus. He thinks people were trying to tell him and he didn't understand what they were saying. He got off the bus and then realized it -- things like that. Knowing the English language was extremely difficult.

And also both my parents were Yiddish speaking and I can remember dinners at our house with all sorts of relatives and wonderful stories being told and then punch lines coming out in Yiddish and my mother turning to us and saying, "You know, it doesn't quite translate." She would try to translate it, but never could quite do it. And I associated that language with something very rich and interesting and enjoyable.

Were you worried about breaking some of the cardinal rules of low-budget filmmaking: You don't do period pieces, you don't do something that's half in English and half in Yiddish?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: I didn't know enough to know that I was breaking cardinal rules and that's the truth. I had to tell this story and I had to do what I could to tell it.

Did the fact that you knew you wouldn't have much money to shoot this movie have any impact on you while you were writing the script?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Constantly. I was constantly thinking, for example, about how I could do Ellis Island, things like that. It was one thing after another, just constantly trying to figure out how I could tell the story without having a budget that would have allowed me to tell the full story, where you could recreate the Lower East Side, like they did in Godfather II.

We used one street, Morton Street, and we could only shoot in one direction, because that direction faced Bleecker, where the streets formed a "T," so that you only had to create the look on Morton up toward Bleecker.

If we faced the other way, it was Seventh Avenue and obviously we couldn't close Seventh Avenue, we didn't have that ability. In Godfather II, they had street after street, traveling shots that were gorgeous. So we just did what we could and everything was written and organized with that in mind.

My own experience in writing low-budget films is that you often have to do a part of something; a part has to stand for something larger.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Henry Jaglom on "Venice/Venice"

What inspired Venice/Venice?

HENRY JAGLOM: My movies are always in direct relationship to what's going on in my life.

I was invited to be, strangely enough, the American representative, with my film New Year's Day, by the film festival in Venice. It was the only film from America that was in the official competition.

Certainly from the conventional point of view, my films are not the traditional fare that comes out, and festivals no matter how creative and art-oriented they are, they seem to like to support themselves with big, commercial, mainstream films.

In any case, I was stunned that I was invited to be the American representative. New Year's Day had gotten very good reviews in America and had a nice little run, but there was no reason to expect that anybody would take it on that kind of a level. But the Europeans really liked it, and they invited it to the festival with all the hoopla that goes along with being an official invitee, representing of all things the United States.

I'm such a counter-cultural figure here, I thought it would be a really interesting opportunity to make a film about a counter-cultural figure like myself, someone who's far from the mainstream, being invited to represent his country at this oldest and most prestigious of film festivals.

So I did, but I made one condition for my doing it. I figured it was highly unlikely that I would ever be invited again, knowing the films I was intending to make, so I thought, why not take advantage of this and shoot a film -- since I'm very interested in the position of the off-center artist in society -- why not make a film about this unconventional filmmaker who finds that he's invited to be the official representative of the United States, and what will happen to him?

So I made the condition of accepting their nice honor that I would do on the condition that anyone who interviewed me I could interview them at the same time. I would have a crew with me. The Festival people were all too happy to do it, they thought it was fascinating. And so that's how I did.

I brought no crew from America. My cinematographer, who's Israeli, I brought from Israel. He put together a five or six-person crew of Italians in Venice. I had three actors come: My star, Nelly Alard, who came from France, my friend Suzanne Bertish, who came from London, and against my wishes and without my economic support, Daphna Kastner, an actress who I'd used in Eating, who I told, "I'm sorry, I can't afford to bring anyone over for this, it's all going to be shot there," so she got on a plane and came by herself anyway. So I cast her as my assistant that I could annoy and drive crazy.

And that was it. David Duchovny was there, because David was in New Year's Day. So I said to David, "Okay, I want you play a little part in this as well," and he said, "Sure."

I decided I would make it up as I went along, based upon what was happening to me, because that would give a sense of what happens to somebody who comes to the film festival.

Then I thought that the second half will take in California. I structured that half, to reflect my feelings about Venice, America, Venice, Italy, movies, real life and all of that. And that's the part where I did the interviews in my office, and for that part I wrote a much more structured script and brought several of the characters into it who had been in the European half. And then switched it around, turned it around, so that what happened in Venice, Italy was really the movie they shot. We end on the editing machine in my office, editing the Italy part of the movie.

At what point did you decide to make that switch and put what is essentially the second half -- the scenes in Italy that we later discover are actually the movie he's making -- when did you decide to put that sequence first?

HENRY JAGLOM: As I was doing this, I realized that one of my main themes here was the affect of movies on our sense of reality and on our romantic dreams and that this whole movie was kind of a romantic dream. I'm meeting this extraordinary creature, this journalist who falls in love with me and who I fail to attract because I'm being such an asshole and she's expecting the person I am in the movies and all of that. So I thought, that really sounds like a movie.

I didn't think about it while I was shooting the movie in Italy, I just shot it the way I would have shot it anyway. I shot it for its own reality. But when I came back I realized that the Italy segment should be the film that I'm making.

That film does reflect more profoundly, for me, my sense of what my life is like. It really captures in some way, deeply for me, my own interior sense of life. So that's why I'm very attached to it.

You made good use of Nelly's background in physics, particularly when she compares moviemaking and movie watching to the principals that Heisenberg developed.

HENRY JAGLOM: I always do this with my actors -- if they have a particularly interesting bio, I ask "Let's talk about something." So I said to her, "Listen, the most important scene in this movie is going to be a scene -- and you're not going to know when it's going to take place -- but it's going to be a scene where I'm pointing out that this feels like a movie I'm making."

I said, "What I would like to do then is for you to bring in Heisenberg and the cat in the box business, because it becomes this whole metaphor for films and how we see them and seeing them affects our perception of reality and all of that." She said, "Great."

To me it's just a question of finding out what the actor's equipment is, what special aspects they might have handy, that further help explicate a point in the thematic intention. That's why we used the Heisenberg Principal, it worked very nicely.

I love the scene where you're commenting on how noisy the awning above you is, and how it would be tough to shoot a movie in that spot.

HENRY JAGLOM: Well, that's because I was shooting a movie and the goddamned awning was clicking, so the only way to deal with that is to comment on it.

What advice would you give to a filmmaker who wanted to make a movie like yours?

HENRY JAGLOM: It's really simple: Don't do my kind of movie, do your kind of movie. Figure out what your kind of movie is, not my kind of movie. That would be my advice.

And once you've figured out what your kind of movie is, don't let anybody tell you that anything about it is wrong. Don't let anybody diminish your enthusiasm or excitement about it. And insist that you know what you're doing, even if you don't know what you're doing, because you will find out what you're doing as you go along.