Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist

Film Production: Why The DP is Your MVP

I’m mentoring a young friend through the process of writing and directing his first feature, which he’ll shoot in a year; he’s still in development tweaking the script before it goes out to cast. His executive producer, the former president of a major studio, said to him the other day, “Your cinematographer is the most important person on set after you.” I couldn’t agree more.

There’s nothing like working with a great DP, it makes all the difference in the world to the outcome of your film on many levels. The most important level for me is the personal, the experience of making a film. I don’t get to direct often, so when I do I want to enjoy it, to be carried away by, yes, the quasi-spiritual experience of creating something worthy in harmony with my crew, as cheesy as that might sound.

Jessica Chastain Tree of Life

Filmmaking: Is Voiceover Narration Always a Weakness?

A couple of weeks ago I was in a preliminary meeting for a TV series I am being commissioned to write. One of the associated producers, who has hitherto exclusively made reality-TV fare, suggested the characters break the fourth wall and talk to the camera, in mockumentary style, which works to great effect in both TV and feature-film comedies — note the word “mock” — but not in drama.

As a purist, I was taken aback by the suggestion of deploying this unnecessary device. I reigned in my kneejerk contempt for it by nodding and muttering, “Hmm, interesting idea.”  It just didn’t suit my vision for this particular piece at all, but I’m also coming in later in this project’s process. I’m changing it from a comedy to at most a dramedy, although by the time I’m through it’ll likely be an outright drama with comedic hints now and then; one of the main characters has a personality disorder that is too often the butt of jokes, which isn’t so bad as it is tiresome and inauthentic to how both people with the disorder and their caretakers deal with it in real life.

Under the Skin

REVIEW: ‘Under the Skin’ Does Just That

It’s a testament to Jonathan Glazer’s singular, jagged-collage storytelling technique that I didn’t realize I’d read the book from which his Under the Skin is adapted until midway through the film. In fairness to me, the adaptation is so unfaithful it’s a wanton slut who’s been fucked so vigorously and pleasurably she’s unrecognizable.

(Like every reviewer, I’m going to have to give away who the lead character really is and what she does. If you want to experience the pure fine-art experience of Glazer’s masterpiece, the surprises as they unfold, stop here. Know before you go that it is a masterpiece — not a movie, not a film, but cinema — therefore immune to subjective negative-or-positive opinions. Okay. That’s all. Good-bye.)

Young Orson Welles

Filmmaking: It Never Pays to Be an Asshole

I had a blast yesterday on the set of what should have been an arduous student-film shoot I was mentoring. The location was outside Barstow, in the high desert midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It was total Breaking Bad territory — you almost expected the occasional BOOM! of a meth lab exploding in one of the trailer parks that dotted the lunar landscape.

A lot of the fun was set early in the day by Tabi Farnsworth, the owner of the “picture car” that was being driven on camera by the protagonist of the short film. An eighty-one-year-old former hairdresser who has redefined ‘flamboyant’ by being the human equivalent of a fizzy ice cream soda, Tabi insisted on driving it to the location himself,

Kimberly Peirce

Nobody Sets Out to Make a Bad Movie

There was a silent cheer that went around the collective hearts of all my fellow creators of drama content after the Carrie remake bombed last weekend. We’re an impoverished, underworked segment of the entertainment playground, given to drooling schadenfreude in unseemly ways when the more popular, bullying genres fail. It didn’t matter that this misfortune happened to one of our own, Kimberly Peirce, the writer-director of Boys Don’t Cry, a film we all cried over,

Bradley Cooper Details Magazine

OSCARS 2013: ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ As a Duet of Americana

As we barrel towards the Oscar nominations on January 10, I wanted to get as many of these reviews and essays about the possible contenders out of the way, which is why I’m stacking these two together.  They also happen to be companion pieces in many respects: both figure American men in early middle age struggling with both internal and external issues; they are directed by indie stalwarts; both are macro examinations and celebrations of non-urban America, one rural the other suburban; they are love stories.  I’m sure I can build other flimsy bridges between them, but I’ll leave those four themes as reason enough for this twin review.

While trying to persuade a friend who wanted to see Les Misérables to see Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land instead, he asked, “What sort of a Van Sant film is it?”

“The Good Will Hunting/Milk kind,” I replied.  In other words, the more mainstream social-issues-driven variety, rather than Gus’ own private Idaho of pretty male teens and the trouble they get into, which is the sort of film he prefers making, but can’t make a living on.

The production back story with Promised Land is this was meant to be Matt Damon’s directorial debut, from a script he wrote with John Krasinski, based on a story by Dave Eggers.  Damon had to step down as director due to scheduling conflicts, and asked Gus to step in, which explains why the film has so little of the auteur director’s imprimatur on it.

Rent.  Ain’t it a bitch?

Hugh Jackman Les Misérables

REVIEW: ‘Les Misérables.’ Life’s Tough. Yeah, Well.

It should be noted right from the start that I am an unusual Ghey, but a typical filmmaker: I am entirely contemptuous of musical theater.  Having said that, more often than not I have enjoyed the few Broadway or West End productions I’ve been to over the years immensely.  It can be rocking great entertainment, but so can a magic show or figure skating or Cirque du Soleil.

To give you an idea of how bad it is with me, the few episodes of Glee that I’ve watched (most of its first season, actually), I fast-forwarded over the musical numbers.  I cannot sing a whole show tune, just bits and pieces of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” because it has that mawkish Christmas carol quality that makes you all emotional, although you don’t know why.  In fact, the more melodramatic and successful musical theater songs seem to have a lot in common with carols.  I’m sure this has to do with some common key, or chord, or melody that brings out the weepies.  I’d like a musicologist to explain the phenomenon to me one day.  No rush, though.

In a way, show tunes are the Negro spirituals of the Gheys.  They sing of our hopes, our sufferings, our dreams of appearing in fierce outfits high-kicking in front of an adoring audience, of finally being accepted as the fabulous creatures we really are, of being Liza and Judy and Patti.  I personally might not feel any of that, but I certainly get it, and appreciate the important cultural role musical theater plays in Homolandia.

Life of Pi Tiger

REVIEW: ‘Life of Pi’ Capsizes but Floats, Barely.

I’ll admit it: more often than not, I’m a sucker for extremely popular novels, and I loved Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.  I was passionate Cloud Atlas in an almost unseemly way, too, and I sobbed like a melancholic Victorian housewife at the end of The Kite Runner.  But all three books have struggled to be translated successfully to the screen despite being handled by some of Hollywood’s most adept directors.  That might be due to higher-than-usual expectations because of how I felt for the books, but I doubt it.  I have wanted nothing more than these films to put the awesome back in awesomeness, and have forgiven them more than they deserved as a result.

I was particularly impressed with Life of Pi the book because it was written by a gora and I, James Killough, host of the 1993 Miss India Pageant, am one of those goras who feels he owns India, or at least huge swaths of it, and we are a jealous, proprietary lot.  “You know more about my country than I do!” is a common phrase I’ll hear from an Indian I’ve just met.  Two desi writers, Salam Rushdie and Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel), have been unwitting mentors for my own work.  When I bust out truly whimsical lyrical Americanized Hobson-Jobson mala garlands of neologized sentences, that is purely their influence.  So Martel didn’t have my permission to write his book, and I fought him tigerly for encroaching on my territory at first, but by the time I put it down, he had won his right to his India fair and square.

I also think Ang Lee ranks in the top ten directors working today.   Relatively speaking, he gets to do what he wants in an industry where you seldom get to do what you want, or not what you set out to do, at least.  Therefore, you would think that the equation of worthy book plus strong director would equal amazing film, but like Cloud Atlas and The Kite Runner before it, Life of Pi disappoints far more than it impresses.

Black Sheep of the Family

A Black Sheep for Thanksgiving

While pondering dysfunctional relationships the other day in anticipation of my trip home for Thanksgiving, I hopped links until I landed on a few sites that discussed the phenomenon of the black sheep/outcast in a family.  The gist of some current pop psychology thinking is that, unless the black sheep has a mental impairment or other function-obstructer, it is the family that outcasts him that is dysfunctional, not him.  Apparently they tend to hide behind a wall of acute conformity and normalness, and make him the scapegoat for their various neuroses, anxieties and other personality bugaboos.

The goats and the sheep make it a little too Old MacDonald Had a Farm, I gotta say.  As almost purely a descendant of Scottish Highlanders, goats and sheep are in my blood.  Maybe I’m indentifying with this.  Maybe not.

The notion of the dysfunctional family heaping their shit on the black sheep makes some sense, but I’m not sure I entirely agree—I am certainly no victim, and very much enjoy and cultivate my outsider status.  My family couldn’t disagree with their dysfunctionality even if they tried: my father has been in AA for maybe thirty years; my brother has been sober most of his adult life because the drinking was getting out of hand when he was younger (but he’s not in a program that I’m aware of); my sister once qualified herself to me as an “enabler,” and has tried all kinds of programs; my mother met her husband at an Al-Anon meeting.  Counting me, that’s all of us.