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.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dan O'Bannon on "Dark Star"

How did the script come about?

DAN O'BANNON: John (Carpenter) and I were talking and he said he was going to do this graduate film project. I was very taken with it, and I started pitching ideas back at him. First thing you know, I was helping him make that film. At first he just wanted me to act in it, and I did that. But I was very excited about working on all aspects of the thing.

By the time we got through, the thing was about 50 minutes long. And when we took it to the USC Cinema department and started talking to them about taking it to festivals, we were told it was too long -- that it should have been 20 minutes long, and then they would have taken it around to festivals. But because it was 50 minutes long, they couldn't do anything with it. John and I were pretty upset about that, because it meant nobody would see it.

What did you do then?

DAN O'BANNON: A friend of ours said he would put $10,000 of his own money into it if we could expand it into a feature, and then we could try to get it distributed. It was a tough decision, because it was pretty tight at 50 minutes. Expanding it meant we were going to have to shoot a lot of scenes that were filler, and that would lessen the tightness of the story and make it into an episodic film.

Since they weren't going to take it around to the festivals, we were pretty much stuck. We only had one option--go ahead and shoot some extra scenes. It was kind of disappointing, because that meant we had to go from the most-impressive student film ever made to one of the cheapest features. It wasn't a question of choosing between two venues; there was only one venue offered.

We added a lot of stuff with me in it, because I was the most reliably available as an actor. And we added a lot of slapstick stuff, like the whole subplot about me chasing the alien balloon around, up and down shafts and things. All of that was done to pad.

How did the elevator scene come about?

DAN O'BANNON: We were talking about that old Harold Lloyd film, where he's climbing over a building and how funny and scary it is. We had this idea that we could do this funny thing with this creature going up and down in the elevator shaft. And then we had to figure out how to shoot it.

The first thing we thought was that we'd go find an elevator shaft somewhere, but that didn't get very far before we realized--never mind practical or impractical--it was dangerous. So we finally came up with, let's just do it on its side. What the hell. At least we can do it that way, and maybe if it's funny and exciting people won't care.

I ended up having an appendectomy right after I shot that scene. I just had that board down to my butt, and I had to keep my legs up, waving around in the air. Sometimes I think that I forced some food or something into my appendix from all that stress. I was 26 years old, and you really don't think what that sort of thing is going to do to you. You just have a good idea and you start to do it. And then you find out how hard it is. Today I wouldn't be able to do it all, even if I were willing to try, which I wouldn't be.

What's the biggest lesson you took away from Dark Star?

DAN O'BANNON: I learned all the wrong lessons on
Dark Star. When I finally directed a movie for real, I thought I was supposed to do everything. And I ended up making everybody mad. I was over-prepared for directing and I was mis-directed by having gone to film school, and thought that the director was supposed to be an auteur and do everything himself. When I actually tried doing that in a real movie, I found that I couldn't get anything I wanted, because they would sabotage me.

It basically took me two pictures to learn an entirely different orientation toward directing.

What I learned was very simple: A director doesn't make a movie. Everybody else makes the movie. That means the director doesn’t have to know how to do anything. All the director has to do is be there and stand there and make creative decisions if he feels like it. I had to swivel around 180 degrees and stop worrying about exactly how I wanted to get everything on the screen and start worrying about how to trick 300 people into doing it for me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou"

What was going on in your life and your career before you came to write Eve's Bayou?

KASI LEMMONS: I had been an actor for a long time. I'd done a couple of plays with really good companies, Naked Angels and Steppenwolf, and then I went to film school. When I got out of film school I had a short film that was festivaling around, called Fall From Grace. And then I did Silence of the Lambs and moved to Los Angeles.

I'd written with other people, but Eve's Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself. At that point in my life I was starting to think about the future. I'd been to film school, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept that I would start to marry all of these elements, the things that I'd been doing for years.

What I really wanted to do was to write the perfect role for myself. To write the perfect part. If you could write a perfect part for yourself, what would it be? So I wrote the character of Mozelle for me to play when I got a little bit older.

Also it was very much an experiment in a certain type of language and a certain type of writing style. It was very ambitious. I knew what I wanted to do, but it was more of an experiment. And then when I was finished with it, I showed it to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who was my boyfriend at the time, and he said, "You've got to show this to somebody else." He was the person who said, "You can't put it in a drawer. You have to show it to somebody."

Where did the idea for the story come from?

KASI LEMMONS: I remember the first time I told any story from Eve's Bayou was at an audition. The casting director didn't want to see a scene from the show. He wanted us to talk. So I started spinning Eve's Bayou stories. I talked about my aunt who had gotten married five times and all of her husbands had died. That was true. The more fantastical parts of the story are true.

I wrote it down as a short story and I wrote some other short stories. One was about two little kids, a brother and sister, who go and look in their grandmother's room and it talks about all of her medicines and the way in which her room was very evocative. And then another was about Eve and Jean Paul Batiste and how a bayou came to be named after this slave who saved her master's life with voodoo and witch-doctoring. So I had all these stories, but they weren't really connected. There was some connection in my mind, but I hadn't found it yet.

Then I invented the character of Louis Batiste for the stories to revolve around. Way before I wrote anything down I could tell you the entire story of Eve's Bayou, the entire thing complete with flashes of lightning. I could tell you the whole movie. I had it all in my head.

Where you thinking about budget at all while you wrote?

KASI LEMMONS: I wrote it as a literary experiment. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than wanting to get this story down on paper. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing it I thought it might be a book. And then I ended up writing it as a screenplay and I had the idea of the role of Mozelle, but I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn into a book or a screenplay or what was going to happen with it. I just let it come out.

I wasn't thinking about budget and I wasn't thinking about directing it at all. We took it to directors. So I really wasn't thinking about budget until I decided to direct it.

What was it that made you decide to direct it?

KASI LEMMONS: I took a bunch of meetings that were a little bit frightening to me and I started to realize that I'd written a very delicate piece of material that could be misinterpreted very easily. In fact, it was just as easy to misinterpret it as it was to interpret it the way I intended. I took some scary meetings where I thought, "Oh God, I'd rather keep it in the drawer than let people interpret it this way."

My producer kept saying, "What's a sexy idea of a director? Who's sexy?" And I was thinking, "Who's sexy? Who's sexy?" Literally I woke up on my birthday and it was an epiphany. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to direct it."

After that moment I never vacillated. I went to the producer and said, "I went to film school. My short film did really well and I've decided I'm going to direct this." He almost fell off his chair. But he was very supportive. The first thing he said when he recovered from shock was that he wanted to produce a short film for me to see what I could do. Something with a 35mm camera, real crew, the whole thing. And that's what he did. My agent put up half the money and he put up the other half. It was really amazing.

Once you decided to direct it, did you ever consider also acting in it?

KASI LEMMONS: No. I find directing to be a very, very voyeuristic art form. Almost a perversion. You're really watching other people's intimate moments and trying to get those moments out of them. But I don't think there was ever a question of me wanting to be in it once I decided to direct it.

Was it much of a struggle for you to get the tone you felt in the script up onto the screen?

KASI LEMMONS: Not really, once the actors nailed the language. The language to me, and I really haven't felt this way with other things that I've written, but that language in Eve's Bayou was like Shakespeare. That's because it started out as a language experiment, so I made them say it word for word. And the words were really important to me. So they had to say it as it was written.

Once they nailed the language, the language really helped them fall into the tone.

How tough was it for the actors to get that and make those speeches work? I'm thinking in particular of Mozelle's "Life is filled with good-byes, Eve" speech.

KASI LEMMONS: That's my favorite speech. Debbi Morgan's such a wonderful actress. She came in and her audition was wonderful. Wonderful. She really got it. And once she got the words exactly, like, "Well, you musta been thinking something right before you was thinking that, what led you to that particular thought?" Once you could nail the words and you're not improvising on the words, you're saying those exact words, the words help with the character. But she was so wonderful, she was wonderful from the beginning and she understood Mozelle. There was a part of her that was Mozelle.

Did you learn anything writing Eve's Bayou that you're still using today?

KASI LEMMONS: You know, there's an innocence when you write your first script. You don't know what the rules are. It's almost something that's really hard to reclaim. So that's what I'm always trying to get back to, the innocence, to try and be that pure. I don't know that I can ever do it again, but to try and remember to be that unleashed in a way.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wayne Kramer on "The Cooler"

What was the genesis of the script for The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: My good friend,, Frank Hannah is a fountain of great ideas and he used to bounce stuff off of me all the time. I had only sold one project to Hollywood at the time (Mindhunters, which was in the process of being rewritten by the umpteenth writer) and had had a couple of scripts optioned, but nothing was really happening with them. My original goal was always to write and direct, but nobody was interested in letting me direct anything at the time since I had zero track record.

When Frank pitched me the core idea for The Cooler (a guy with contagious bad luck being used by a casino, who falls in love and gets lady luck which backfires on the casino), I instantly responded to it. I told him that's the idea he should be working on and that he should start writing it immediately. At the same time, I was looking to direct my first "real" feature and I had interest from a producer (Michael Pierce) about financing something at a real low budget. I just couldn't let the idea go and a few days later I called up Frank and asked him if he would be interested in writing The Cooler with me -- but only on the condition that I get to direct it -- and, thankfully, he was amenable to that.

So we sat down (fairly quickly) and worked out most of the story beats. We both blurted out Bill Macy's name as the perfect guy for the role right at the start. We wrote it with him in mind -- to this day, I don't think that another actor could ever do justice to that part. There was a time when Bill wasn't going to do the movie and another actor was being considered for it -- and I think it would have never been the movie I wanted it to be without Bill.

Since Frank has the gambling gene and I don't, when we were ready to write the actual script, I broke it down so that I would write the more character focused stuff and Frank would concentrate on more of the casino action and then I blended the scenes together into a singular work.

Were you concerned about budget at all while writing --- that is to say, did you write with keeping the budget low in mind?

WAYNE KRAMER: Absolutely. First and foremost in my mind was that I needed to deliver a script that could be shot for about a million dollars or less. One of the things that attracted me to the idea at the time was that it could be made for very little money. Most of it was set on a casino floor and in Shelly's office and a motel room.

Our biggest challenge initially was that it was written to be a period piece and that would have been cost prohibitive. By giving it a contemporary setting, I was still able to retain somewhat of a period vibe by keeping the Shangri-la casino in a "time warp." I don't think the film would have been as interesting if it was set in the 70's as we originally envisioned. This was a case of budget constraints on us making the material even better.

Even though the original was always about the changing face of Vegas, it just became more "relevant" in 2002 because Vegas was really exploding into this amusement park behemoth at the time.

If one breaks the script down, it's all set within the casino and hotel, other than two or three other locations. And that's the way we approached production, to try and shoot everything in one location - which is what we ended up doing. We must have shot about 90 percent of the film at what was known as the Golden Phoenix at the time (formerly the Flamingo in Reno). Even luckier for us, the casino/hotel was going through renovations, so it was closed to the public. They were literally tearing up the casino floor while we were shooting.

Can you think of one or two money-saving tricks you did while shooting that other low-budget filmmakers could learn from?

WAYNE KRAMER: Well, the more prepared you are, the more you're going to save money on what's important. This probably relates to the next question as well, but I knew every shot I wanted to film and where the camera was going to be looking. I had spent the previous six months up until the day of shooting storyboarding every frame of the film -- I was determined to leave nothing to chance. Of course, you make changes to your boards, but you have a strong blueprint for what you want the film to be and everyone can refer to it when they have questions.

Besides storyboarding, you want to limit your company moves while shooting, which means finding locations that are really close to one another, or even better, within the same structure.

We were amazingly lucky on The Cooler, because we shot in an existing hotel/casino and were able to not only use the casino floor (which we did significant production design work to), but their theater, including the backstage area, where we built the interior of Bernie's motel room, their employment office (doubling for a hospital), their hotel rooms, an upstairs restaurant was turned into Shelly's office and so on.

When we did venture outside of the casino, we probably only traveled a block or two, so we never had to wrap our main location. We also housed and fed the crew in the hotel, so we could just walk away from the equipment at night without having to worry about wrap time or travel eating into our budget and schedule. It was a truly miraculous scenario, but borne out of solid planning and scouting.

Is there a key lesson you took away from your experience on The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: For me, I learned it was all about collaboration.

Surround yourself with talented people who understand your vision for the film and let them bring their best to the table. If your ego gets in the way, you'll only end up hurting yourself.

At the same time, you cannot allow your vision for the film to be usurped by cast or crew. You have to follow your gut and it's a difficult balance to maintain.

Directing is a tough job and everyone around you on the set seems to be having more fun - because you're too busy stressing about the next setup or an actor that you haven't cast yet, or a million different things. You have to stay focused at all times and be able to think quickly on your feet.

You also have to KNOW your film. If you know your film, you'll be up to the challenge. It's also about keeping the film tonally consistent.

Preparation and collaboration is everything. And CONFIDENCE. Even if it's an act. Never let them see you sweat.

Most important is that you work with good people. Trustworthy people. If you don't have a final cut contract, pray that your producers and financiers are behind you.

The biggest battles I've ever fought are in the editing room - or after test screenings. This is where I find a filmmaker is at his/her most vulnerable.

You can shoot a great movie, but the money guys have to be willing to let you release the best version of the film and not just the most commercial version. I thank Ed Pressman for having the balls to back me artistically on The Cooler, because it could have been a far different movie if someone like Harvey Weinstein had gotten his hands on it.