Favourite Film Book(s)

by phil on July 21, 2014

We all know the situation. Someone asks you to recommend your favourite xyz… movie, book, song, band, vacation spot, etc etc. It’s impossible.

So, when we were asked to write about our favourite book on filmmaking, I knew that it too was impossible. Filmmaking is such a wide term, that the best I could do was narrow it down into ‘best in group’. I mean really. How can you compare the best terrier to the best gun dog?!

Screenwriting

At heart I still think of myself as a creator, and for me in the movie business that means the screenwriter. If it ain’t on the page there’s no way it’s hitting the back of the CMOS sensor! I’ve taken all the big courses (McKee, Truby, etc) and read all the big books (Sid Fields, McKee, etc), but for me the one that really gave me the ‘aha’ moment was this one.
The ‘Writer’s Journey’ unlocked – read: spoiled – movie watching for me for a very long time after I read it. It felt ‘right’ and seemed to definitely mimic what I was seeing on screen in movies that I loved.

Is it easy? No. It is still tough to follow Vogler’s map with enough creativity to make something unique and compelling, but, it does give you the signposts along the way.

When I am developing a story I try to run it through a few templates, or story engines, to first give me a deeper understanding of the story I am trying to write and second to hopefully find a template that matches to make writing the script even 1% easier! I still use other templates and engines, but, my master template, the one I overlay onto any story where there is a central character, is the one outlined in Vogler’s book.

The ‘Writer’s Journey’ takes us through two significant structures. The first is ‘The Hero’s Journey’, where our central character goes through 12 steps (no addiction required!) that covers the entire script, in order, from start to finish (Vogler, 1996 : 18). (Interesting to note that these points are in script order, which may not match the unwrapped timeline of the character – i.e something may happen 20 pages in that is a flashback, but it is still 20 pages into the structure and therefore should be along that path).

The second structure Vogler covers is the hero’s ‘Inner Journey’, a further 12 steps that cover the same timeline, but delve into character emotion (as opposed to character motion). (Vogler 1996: 82)

Ah, read the book!

Vogler also has a great website that gives you a great introduction to the material. You can find that here.

Shooting

Film is a language. And what I find is that in the throws of production you can sometimes forget how to speak. My next book is again invaluable. It’s actually 3 books.

The ‘Master Shots’ series by Christopher Kenworthy is like the greatest directing assistant ever. Over the three volumes Kenworthy outlines shot setups for nearly every scenario. When you are going through your script and storyboarding ideas, Kenworthy’s volumes are an amazing starting point. They cover what the audience is expecting, after a lifetime of media ingesting.

The shot list is pretty impressive, from Fight Scenes, to Dialogue, to Love Scenes (and that’s just volume 1!). The latest edition covers blocking and camera movement and even gives tips on cutting to different takes together.

I know there will be some eye rolling from the ‘serious directors’ in the audience. They want to learn and hone their craft and give and original spin on things. But, in my opinion, at least 80% of any movie that hopes to find an audience has to speak in accepted visual terms. And I feel the Kenworthy series gives that to a director.

Of course, film directing can’t be learned from a book. Sitting with this on your lap will not get over the fact that your film, your script, is different (hopefully) and will have situations and settings that are of course not covered. But it is a good starting point. If you didn’t spend $50,000 on going to film school this will still put you in very good company.

Gosh, after writing this I want to go back and read it again!

Producing

My favourite book on producing is actually one I just read. It’s one of the few books I’ve read on the subject that talks about the whole tip to tail job, not just line producing (the work done during the few weeks of production).
‘The Producers’ by Tim Adler is in essence a series of profiles covering 7 different independent producers and their styles. The book is fairly recent (2006, but I believe written in 2001/2002) and thereby gives a somewhat modern approach to the subject (though there is little talk of low budget or the internet). It is also nice that the subjects are ‘independent’ filmmakers. It puts it into the realm of the likes of ‘us’.

Adler manages to really cover a wide range – from Michael Douglas’s early days with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald’s work with Richard Curtis to Marin Karmitz producing Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors Trilogy’.

Throughout each interview you get a warts and all look at the role of producer. The lengthy process of getting a film produced (Douglas quotes it as being on average 5 years (Adler, 2006; 62)) comes up again and again. Again and again we hear how the producer drives the production from concept, and often script creation and development, through actual production and onwards to distribution.

Each subject has a slightly different take on it. But, despite it all, I came away inspired. Producing is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not even for me, but, with every chapter I felt more and more like it was an exciting, stressful, wide ranging discipline. Quite simply, this book solidified my desire to become a producer.

What Started It All

Back in 2001 I was living in Spain and was a little bored and frustrated with my situation – personal and professional. I felt like I was missing some creative challenge or output. I surfed the internet and stumbled across Rick Schmidt, his book, and his ‘Feature Workshop’ program.
I bought Rick’s book ‘Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices’ and my mind was blown. Making movies was something I’d always dreamed of doing but also thought was beyond my reach. Rick changed all that. Rick inspired a whole generation of filmmakers in the US (including Robert Rodriquez, director of Sin City). Rick covered all the things we now take a standard in the low budget film world – getting permissions, raising money, finding cheap alternatives, getting production value, etc. He was a maverick.

I signed on to go to one of Rick’s insane Feature Workshops. A dozen strangers get together and write, shoot and edit a feature film in about 10 days. It is madness, and of course rarely is the output watchable but it is meant to give you a taste of what is needed to get the job done, and, to show you it CAN be done!

It, quite simply, changed my life.

And, not for the least of which that it was Rick that told me about Raindance. If I remember correctly he said something like ‘there’s a guy in London who has a cross between a film school and an adult education program’. It was Rick that pointed me to my first Raindance experience in 2002.

The book now seems obvious, but, there are still thousands out there who will be inspired by it.

Bibliography

Vogler, C. (1992) The Writer’s Journey, London: BoxTree

Kenworthy, C. (2011) Master Shots Vol 1, 2nd edition: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie, London: Michael Wiese Productions

Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots (Screen and Cinema), London: Methuen

Schmidt, R. (1995) Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices: Revised Edition, 2nd Edition: 2000, Penguin Books

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Woody Allen: Director

by phil on July 4, 2014

I remember sitting in the basement, what must have been late at night, in the early/mid 1970s. The TV was on, I was alone, and enthralled in the work of a man who’s career now spans 50 years and an incredible 60+ films: Woody Allen.

The movies of Woody Allen have always spoken to me.  I think it is the self-deprecation and the erudite humour that has always appealed to me. To paraphrase one of the Pythons, its him looking in the mirror with a dictionary and insulting himself. I’ve always believed in the addage that comedy comes from putting an exceptional person in unexceptional circumstances (and drama vice versa) and in Allen’s case, he is the exceptional man… which is such a contradiction I can’t help but be seduced by it.

I realise that tackling a prolific director such as Allen is beyond both my time and my ability, so I’m going to limit my scope. One of Allen’s first transitions as a film maker came in the jump from his ‘Slapstick’ Period spanning from 1969′s ‘Take the Money And Run’ (that film I was watching in the basement in the early 70s) to 1975′s pseudo-intellectual-bashing masterpiece ‘Love And Death’.

Then came ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) and all of a sudden Woody Allen was a grown up film director.

I’d like to look at those two films – ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Annie Hall’ – in closer detail.

Love And Death

I was walking through the woods, thinking about Christ. If he was a carpenter, I wondered what he charged for bookshelves.

‘Love and Death’ tells the story of Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward…and well… Woody Allen. Forced to enlist in the Russian Army, he accidentally becomes a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Returning a war hero, he tricks Sonja into marriage when she believes he will die in a duel. When Napoleon invades Mother Russia, Sonja convinces Boris to attempt to assassinate him. All of this is a pre-tense for philosophical double-talk and slapstick humour, with homages to Eisenstein, Bergman and the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure.

As with all of Allen’s work, the central focus is on the script, not the camera. ‘Love and Death’ has a very 1970s feature feel about it. Most scenes run over 3 minutes, with the standard, workman-like approach of master, two-shot and medium being intercut. This being a comedy often the ‘punch line’ of a scene, or joke, is done in close up. As I say, most of the scenes are shot like this. Most… but not all!

The battlefield scenes evoke ‘War and Peace’. Allen’s use of Russian classical music – especially Prokofiev – mimicked Sergei Eisenstein (who used the same music).

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Death, from Bergman’s ‘Seventh Seal’ turns up in a comedic role. Bergman is present again in the final scene, an obvious nod to Persona (which would be used again, without the humour, in Allen’s Interiors).

Untitled 10Untitled 11‘Love and Death’ is a satire on Russian literature and the motion picture epic – and it contains elements of both. Allen’s often surreal humour allows him to pull in references across the ages – from a Marx Brother’s physical slapstick piece set in a Russian boudoir, to a black drill Sergeant reminiscent of the Vietnam era war films of the time.

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Allen also talks directly to camera in passages that could be interpreted as inner dialog. On one occasional both Boris and Sonja talk their inner dialogs to the camera while sitting side by side.

Above all else, ‘Love and Death’ is a comedy, perhaps the funniest of Allen’s early work, and one that solidified both his writing and on-screen persona as a pseudo-intellectual,neurotic, smart-ass. It’s classic Allen.

The Transition

But the problem is this: it’s easy for me because it’s flamboyant; it’s not real at all [Lax, pg 68]

One of the reasons Allen can be so prolific  is his speed. He has infamously said he can finish a screenplay in four to six weeks. Writing is part of the process of film making, and his judicious use of time gives him options.

In his June 1974 interview with Eric Lax, right at the time he was deciding whether to make ‘Love and Death’ or another unnamed project, he talks about a move in direction, that would most definitely end up in ‘Annie Hall’: a move to ‘the real’.

I’d love to get to the real thing, because that would be the biggest departure for me [ibid]

And get real he did

Annie Hall

You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life

Annie Hall, Allen’s most financially successful film until 2011′s ‘Midnight in Paris’, straddles a period in his film making between farce and trying to pull more ‘reality’ into his work. Watching the film back to write this posting, I was struck by not only the differences between Allen’s previous film (‘Love and Death’, see above) but also by the similarities! Both films start with Voice Over. Both films start with childhood to frame the following story. Both films deal with dealing with unrequited love.

The differences are in essence fewer. Annie Hall substitutes ‘Love and Death’s satiric Russian tragedy backdrop from current day New York City. It’s as if Allen finally feels comfortable enough as a film maker to be able to capture ‘real life’ on screen.

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The other difference is the editing.

Allen is known for keeping a tight crew around him and using it on every production. His first editor, his ‘editing teacher’ as he once called him, was Ralph Rosenblum. Rosenblum worked with Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin before settling in next to Allen in the editing suite for six films, starting in 1969 with ‘Take the Money and Run’ and ending in 1978 with ‘Interiors’ (Rosenblum declined to edit 1979′s ‘Manhattan’ and for the next 20 years Allen worked with Susan Morse, Rosenblum’s assistant editor). Rosenblum was known for his French New Wave-like style and Allen openly admits that he learned a lot not just about editing, but about crafting a story in the editing room, from Rosenblum. Incredibly, ‘Annie Hall’ was not focused on the Allen/Keaton character’s relationship, but was originally about Allen’s internal dialog. It was Rosenblum who recut the film, hi lighting the Annie Hall character. Rosenblum won the BAFTA for his work on Annie Hall.

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The editing in Annie Hall keeps us at a distance. Gone are the close ups on the punch lines. In fact, gone are many of the cuts. There’s an outstanding seen where the Singer (Allen) is in the bedroom with his first wife (Carol Kane) where the camera tracks around the bed and the characters move in and out of frame. The scene ends with Singer talking to the camera, commenting reflectively, from the future as it were, on what we’ve just seen.

Nothing like that had been seen in a Woody Allen film before, but it became a staple of Allen’s cinema after Annie Hall.

There are more scenes shot in master, as if we were watching them ourselves. To quote British producer Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) “for comedy to work properly, you must believe in the characters and let the humour shine through. At the end of the film the audience should feel it has just watched a documentary”. This is the approach taken, perhaps pioneered in screen comedy, by Allen.

Annie Hall won 4 Academy Awards in 1977 – Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Keaton) and Best Picture – beating out ‘Star Wars’.

In Conclusion

It was fascinating for me to watch these two films back to back – in essence, watch them as Allen made them – and note the astonishing differences, and equally astonishing similarities between them. To see Allen grow as a film maker – before your very eyes as it were – is also an incredible experience. It is like Allen ended a chapter, knowing that he had done all he could, or wanted to do, with the slapstick genre and moved on to a more introspective work. In future years, of course, he would move further in to more serious films and then start investigating other dramas and periods.

These two films represent high points of two of Allen’s many genres. Picking ‘the best’ Allen films has always been impossible for me. The list is too long. But these are a great, educational, introduction that can be used as a jumping off point for moving forwards and backwards through his career. I still watch these films every few years. They are now like good friends that still make me laugh and think.

References:

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_and_Death
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woody_Allen
  • Eric Lax, Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking , Vintage, 2009
  • http://www.everywoodyallenmovie.com
  • Tim Adler, The Producers, Methuen Publishing, 2004
  • Robert B. Weide, Woody Allen – A Documentary, 2012

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