Archive: 2006

Where we come from

As we watch the films of today, it is great to take a moment and think about where this medium has evolved from.

In the 1890s, the Lumiere brothers were hard at work to make a motion picture camera. Their father was a photographer and working for him, the men were introduced to the medium and the materials. These are the guys who invented the sprocket hole – the holes on the side of the filmstrip that is used by the camera to advance the film across the lens.

The motion picture camera (cinematographe) was patented on 13 February 1895. On the 19th of March, 1895, the Lumiere brothers shot the first film – people coming out of the Lumiere factory. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but all they were trying to do is capture motion on film and it was this first step that helped establish the medium.

They went on to shoot lots of little clips – the first home movie called “Baby’s Tea Time” was a short segment which featured August Lumiere and his wife, Marguerite, feeding their baby son. Again, a very simple idea, but used to demonstrate the medium. When it was shown, the audience was most impressed the camera actually captured the detail of the wind blowing through the leaves several feet away.

They also made the first comedy of a person watering plants while someone comes up behind him and stands on the pipe, cutting off the water. When the gardener looks at the hose, the comic removes his foot, spraying the gardener on the face.

And they made the famous L’Arrive d’un train la Ciotat. This is a very well framed shot of a train pulling into a station. The train emerges onto the screen at the top right corner and exists the frame at the bottom left corner, providing a great angle. Urban legend has it that the audience was freaked out at the train coming at them and ran out of the theater screaming, although no documentation backs up this claim.

These little movies were the first innovations in the field. Just imagine watching all of these on Dec 28, 1895, (almost a 111 years ago to the day) when the brothers screened 10 little movies publicly for the first time!


The other arts

Over the past week, I’ve watched just a couple of movies, but I have been steeping myself in other art related activities in New York City.

As someone who comes to film in my thirties, I am a huge believer that to be a good filmmaker you not only need life experiences, but you also need exposure to other forms of art. There is so much to see and so much to learn and watching opera or going to a museum will definitely make you a better filmmaker.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. Last week was Rigoletto at The Met and this week was the amazing auction at Christies.


Three One-Minute Reviews

One minute review: Royal Tenenbaums

Directed by Wes Anderson, I LOVED this movie. I’d heard mixed reviews, but this film really got to me. It is a mix of happy and sad, touching and quirky. It does an amazing job of using humor and sarcasm to lighten the mood about life’s difficulties and failings. This messed up family of over-achievers deals with love, death, marriage, breakups, addictions and recoveries in this film that will stay with you for at least a little while. I keep thinking back to it and every time I do, I smile. The acting was phenomenal across the board – Angelica Huston, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwenyth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson – all amazing. If you haven’t watched it, do!

One minute review: The Queen

I was really keen to watch The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears because I’d heard such great things about Helen Mirren. And after watching it, I have to agree – she is phenomenal. I felt I was watching the actual Queen (MI-6 should get in touch with her. She could be a great double). Michael Sheen who played Tony Blair and James Cromwell who plays Prince Phillip were also good, but the rest of the cast was average. It is the view from the inside of a week we are all familiar with – a very interesting look at how a monarch learns about how the world has changed, re-acquaints herself with a new generation and the new expectations of her subjects, and emerges as strong as ever. Worth watching for Helen Mirren.

One minute review: Backwaters

Backwaters, by Jagmohan Mundhra, closed the IAAC film festival. It was the worst movie I have ever seen. The entire movie was dubbed poorly (why not use sync-sound??), the acting was, at best, average, the screenplay was TERRIBLE and the lines were the worst I’d seen in a long time. If the director thought some T&A action would save the film, puh-leeze think again. Most people were pissed at having wasted their time. IAAC embarrassed themselves by closing with this film and it didn’t do justice to the better films in the festival. As someone sitting next to me said “A film student would have been embarrassed to have made this”.

Different sites for different types of film? Maybe, maybe not.

I discovered UbuWeb from the Self-Reliant Filmmaking blog. The author’s wish that You Tube was more UbuWeb got me thinking.

UbuWeb is a place where you can watch and learn the techniques of filmmakers who were very innovative in their time. YouTube is a place where you can be entertained, you watch the latest viral gimmick, and discover what innovative, aspiring filmmakers of today are doing.

UbuWeb bills itself as an educational resource and the content is well organized and presented. On the other hand, YouTube can be overwhelming and it can be hard to find stuff you like. But there is always a level of craziness about community generated content (look at eBay for example) and that craziness is what allows the 13 year old with a dream to have his works up there for the world to see.

But with all the craziness (and probably because of it), YouTube also serves as a *great* educational resource. A quick search of YouTube tells me that you can also find wonderfully educational material there — Bunuel, Cassavetes etc. AND you can find this next to films that pay homage to the greats with their own shorts. How cool is that?

So, if anything, little known UbuWeb should use YouTube to get the word out on it’s content. Throw in a few cool videos and draw users to UbuWeb. And, as YouTube grows, it will need to find a way to let the people who are “less inclined to wade through stuff to find what they are looking for” find things more easily. eBay faced similar challenges in its growth – I think all community-content sites do. If YouTube wants to keep all the niche content segments on the site, it could so easily create a “great filmmakers” channel. They could even outsource that to an UbuWeb or another non-profit that exists for that reason.

I am convinced that there will be more filmmakers from the YouTube generation that ever before. Because for the first time in history, you can get relatively inexpensive high-quality equipment and there is a method of distribution that doesn’t involve a small set of gatekeepers (i.e. studios). And that is a very good thing because we will see levels of experimentation we’ve never seen before. And if by some chance, YouTube starts to play gatekeeper, there will be lots of other sites that will eagerly accept the content and the traffic.

How I get myself to write

I’ve started writing again. I love to write, but find it almost impossible to get started. Once I get started, I actually write pretty quickly – at least the first draft stage.

I’ve resorted to little tricks to help myself be productive – faking deadlines, giving myself pep talks, and most importantly feeling like I am part of a group that is in this together.

  • Faking deadlines. I am part of a cool screenwriting workshop that meets once a week. I think it is cool because it is a group of highly non-competitive and very helpful people who spend the 3 hours dedicated to the person who’s work is being read. There are no distractions and everyone provides really great input. Each semester, we sign up for a date on which to bring in our work. I find when the deadline nears, I write like crazy (usually in the two days before) and manage to write 12 to 20 new pages for my script. But the rest of the semester, I do nothing. That’s terrible!!! God, really terrible! I forgave myself while I was till working full-time, but now I have no excuse.
    So, I figured, why not fake the deadlines for myself. I tell myself that I have to email out a draft to someone on X date and I stick to it. I often do end up emailing out the draft to a close confidant to make it more real.
  • Pep Talks. The pep talks take two themes. I either try positive motivation like “Think about the long corporate hours you put in. This is nothing. Just a couple of hours, come on” and if that doesn’t work, then I shame myself with stuff like “This is pathetic. You quit your job for this? You’re going nowhere fast”. The risk with the latter is that I believe it and then I get depressed which kills the ability to write completely!
  • Working with others. The other day, a screenwriter I sometimes read, David Anaxagoras, posted a thread about using the time change to start writing. Basically using that extra hour to write. That was a great idea. I also chatted with a journalist friend in India who’s been procrastinating on her book for a while. And we decided to write for an hour each morning and we fill each other in on whether we did it and how it went. This method works great for me. I remember a few years ago, I wanted to take a 6am spinning class in San Francisco. A colleague of mine from work signed up with me. He lived a little further away and so he drove to my place, picked me up and then we headed to an hour of sheer torture. There were so many mornings that I wanted to just snuggle in and go back to sleep, but the fact that he’d be in his car downstairs forced me out of bed. So, the fact that I committed to my friend that I would write, makes me hold up my end of the bargain.

These are the little tricks I use to get myself to write. What do the other writers out there do?


Producing 101 with Jon Kilik

Jon Kilik, one of the two producers on Babel, joined us for a discussion before the screening. Jon seems like an extremely modest and likeable guy and he talked about how he worked his way to up the producing ladder � the importance of being a line producer, making your contacts, and learning from great directors (in his case folks like Lumet, Spike Lee, Stone etc.) He encouraged aspiring filmmakers to focus on the learning and not the credit they can earn on the film – he recalled his own experience of working on several movies without getting credited (often working on areas outside the scope of his role), but he focused on doing a good work and was eventually recognized by the director and given the rightful credit.

And then he talked about Babel. Apparently he met director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu when they were both doing prior films in Mexico. He fell in love with the work of Alejandro’s DP, Rodrigo Prieto – the guy who also did the cinematography on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Brokeback Mountain. They all kept in touch and while their schedules didn’t line up for 21 Grams, but they ensured that they made Babel together.

Jon talked about the cycles involved in evolving the script and how he worked with Alejandro on revisions, but he never mentioned the writer Guillermo Arriaga by name. There was one instance where he said that Alejandro and “the writer” worked on something, but that was it. Wow, I guess the rift mentioned by the NY Times is alive and well.

But anyway, back to producing. I worked with a couple of producers earlier this year. I could not have found more likeable or honest people to work with. But to me, the content of their jobs was highly frustrating.

If you are a producer in the Hollywood system and you have no money, you spend most of time acquiring great scripts and then packaging them. Packaging is a term used for putting together the director, the key cast members and the financing. It is a damn difficult thing to do.

Many actors take weeks (if not months) to read a script and either agree or decline. Even if they agree, it is often with a caveat “I will do it if you can also get Actor B”. So, then you need to go get Actor B. If you can’t get Actor B, Actor A might pull out and you start over.

There’s also a huge chicken and egg problem with the financing. To get the film funded, you need a package. But to make pay or play offers to the stars, you need funding. Hmmm. It is all about biz dev, but the deals have to be nurtured for years before they come together.

All this to say that it is very hard to be a producer and it a long slog to the top. And it is even harder to put together ensemble casts like the one in Babel.

All credit to Jon Kilik to making it the hard way. And for continuing to be a nice guy through it all.

Babel – releases Friday

BabelBabel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu(for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes) and written by Guillermo Arriaga, has gotten press for the controversies surrounding the director and the screenwriter. But the focus should be on the film itself. The movie that completes the trilogy started by Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel intercuts between four interconnected stories, often jumping time periods.

It is riveting. And bloody stressful. Once it sets the tone that nothing is going to go well, I sat the edge of my seat knowing bad shit was going to happen at every turn.

Warning – some spoilers ahead

At the core, Babel is a story about communication and the challenges we face due to different languages, different perspectives, in-built biases and different expectations. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on a vacation in Morocco. At the same time, two young goatherds are given a rifle by their father to keep the jackals away. Hmm, let�s see — two young boys have a gun. They have to test the gun. The tourists are in a bus. The bus passes by under the hill the boys are on. Of course, bad shit happens.

An injured Susan is taken to the closest town with a doctor (a veterinarian) as they wait for the US embassy to extricate them. At the same time, the boys are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions (read – bad stuff is going to happen).
In parallel we see the story of a Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who takes wonderful care of Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, who has the same gamin vulnerability as her sister Dakota). Amelia is desperate to go to her son’s wedding, but the parents of the kids are held up as the mother has to undergo surgery. So Amelia, after exhausting all other options, decides to take the kids with her to Mexico for the wedding. Bad, bad move, as we all know.

Goddamn it. I didn’t enjoy the wedding at all since I was waiting for the inevitable bad shit to happen. Fortunately for me, the wedding passed off fine, but then of course, bad shit does happen. The kids and Amelia are stuck wandering the desert. When Amelia is finally picked up, the immigration officers refuse to believe her story, refuse believe there are kids somewhere out there and they arrest her.

Also in parallel, we see the story of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl, who lives with her father. Chieko is an emotional wreck after the death of her mother and she struggles with the fact that most normal guys will not make any effort once they discover her communication challenges. She is desperate for attention, for love, for validation. The need to feel worthy gets expressed sexually as she flashes boys at a restaurant and tries to french kiss her dentist in a desperate attempt to feel wanted.

As Chieko returns home, two police detectives are waiting for her. They want to talk to her father about a hunting rifle he may have gifted to his guide in Morocco. Much later that evening, after yet another rejection, Chieko calls one of the police officers. When he visits, she strips down and begs him to make love to her. Her eventual breakdown is quite heart wrenching.

There were three scenes that stayed with me

  • Richard and Susan have a difficult relationship. We don’t know why (at this point), but they are not very nice to each other. But once she gets shot, all that changes. There is a scene where Susan is in a hut in the village and she talks about dying. Then she talks about how she peed because she couldn’t hold it and that she has to pee again. Richard gets a pan, sits her up and holds the pan under her while she urinates. The intimacy of the moment, the history needed between a husband and wife to do that and emotion of what’s happened breaks down all walls and they kiss. The willingness to help another human being with one of the most private things, and the willingness to be helped, with no shame, with no disgust, with no apology happens so rarely and is perhaps one of the strongest bonding moments between a couple. It was mind-blowingly believable.
  • Amelia’s relationship with the children is beautifully constructed. You can see the love they have for each other. When Amelia is arrested, she asks about the kids and officer brusquely tells her they are not her kids. In tears, she talks about how she fed them and looked after them since they were kids the officer brusquely cuts her off and threatens to deport her. Barraza did a brilliant job. I felt most sorry for her situation.
  • In the final scene of the movie, Chieke is standing at the balcony, completely naked. When her father comes home, he discovers her there. He walks up to her and neither of them says anything as he hugs her and she weeps. The camera keeps drawing back from their embrace – flies backwards into Tokyo, keeping the building and Chieke and her father at the center.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto was excellent. Different styles were employed for each story. Morocco was desolate, vast expanses, lots of wide angles. In the Mexico story, you could fee the heat and dust and in Tokyo, the techno-city comes to life. And the music was brilliant. Gustavo Santaolalla is to be highly commended for the guitar track that underlay the film. Exceptional.

Did I enjoy it? I guess I did. I was so damned stressed that I didn’t feel happy at any moment during the film. But I was glued to my seat, glued to the movie, praying that bad shit doesn’t happen, at least to the kiddies. Did I get my wish? You’ll have to watch the movie!

Note: This review is pre-release. I saw the film tonight (Wednesday) and it releases in the US on Friday. There was a discussion with Jon Kilik, one of the producers, before the screening. Read about it here.

Flags Of Our Fathers

Flags Of Our Fathers is the widely acclaimed film by Clint Eastwood. The now famous picture of the American flag being raised in Iwo Jima was a simple act – an order being carried out by six men. In fact, it was a replacement flag since the first flag that was raised had to be lowered to be provided as a trophy to some muckety-muck. But the picture taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal has become part of American lore.

Iwo Jima FlagFlags Of Our Fathers takes a realistic look at the events that led to the raising of the flag and lives of the men who were enshrined as heroes for cynical, marketing purposes.

In the film, the raising of the flag itself was a humdrum affair, like it probably was in reality. The men find a pole, tie on the flag and a motley crew who are present help raise it. The fact the film gives it passing importance reflects how the men involved thought about it. But when the photograph is seen in America, the press and the politicians see an opportunity to reignite Americans behind the war effort.

The flag was raised on day five of a forty-day war, clearly not the a sign of victory that it came to represent. By the end of that battle, three of the six men who raised the flag are dead. The other three, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are termed heroes and shipped back to the US to help raise money for the war by encouraging the public to buy war bonds. Phillippe, played the role very understated, but also very powerfully. Adam Beach was excellent as the Native American who, despite his bravery in the war, despite being a “hero”, is faced with overt racism.

Eastwood did the following things really well.

  • The movie cuts from present day, when Doc Bradley has just died, to their money raising efforts to the battle itself. While nested flashbacks have been done before, here it works really well.
  • For the scenes at Iwo Jima, he didn’t shoot in black and white (which is what we’ve come to expect from World War II films). Instead he shot in color and then drained the color from it, leaving skin tones in. Very powerful way to demarcate those scenes.
  • The music was excellent. The music didn’t hit the audience over the head, it was subtle, almost a lullaby. And it made the film much better. A lot of the music was composed by Eastwood himself.
  • He let the acting be subtle.
  • He used a light touch. One of the underlying threads of the film is a scene where Doc Bradley leaves his friend Iggy in a foxhole to go tend to an injured soldier. When he returns, Iggy is gone and he searches frantically for him with no luck. Late in the movie, Iggy is finally found. Eastwood shows us only Phillippe’s reaction to what he found. The profound shock, the sadness at how Iggy was treated. He does not show us Iggy’s mutilated body. He didn’t need to. By not showing every gory detail of the war, but instead protecting the audience, Eastwood makes the film more powerful.

Overall, a very good film. An honest film that does not dress up the reality, either of the war or how poorly the “heroes” were treated after their usefulness was fulfilled. It calls out how it is the media and politicians who need to create heroes out of ordinary people doing their jobs. Ordinary people who don’t want the burden or the benefits that the title bestows.

And it is timely. Makes you wonder which of the rah-rah pictures we see today are marketing gimmicks.


To go to film school or not?

I’ve been struggling with this issue for a while. And with the application deadlines just 5 weeks away, I need to make up my mind and not let the decision be made for me by procrastinating..

Background — I have a graduate degree in business. I have a Filmmaking Certificate from NYU where in 12 short weeks, I made two shorts, one of which is here. I live in New York, so there are only two options – NYU and Columbia. NYU probably has a better all-around program and Columbia probably has a better program for writers.

Now the question is whether I invest THREE years (two if Columbia) and go to film school.

Pros —

  • Get much better training on all the basics and all the advanced technical skills of filmmaking
  • Be in an atmosphere where all I do is come up with ideas and make them happen
  • Learn to work in very tight timeframes — if NYU’s 12-weeker was any indication, I’ll learn how to have extremely low shooting ratios and tight production timelines.
  • Finish my feature script with access to professionals who can guide me through it (both schools have great writing departments)
  • Meet a group of peers with whom I will form creative and professional connections
  • Give me more credibility in the world
  • Be in school again! Go to classes, work in coffee shops and otherwise be burden free!

Cons —

  • It is THREE years (at NYU and even at Columbia, because in the third year, you are doing the thesis project). In the same amount of time, I could be working! Actually making a short or working with a great director on his/her feature and learning on the job. While this is just one simple bullet, this is the hugest issue for me. HUGE. I love the doing of it! I’d learn a lot. This is like 5 bullets worth of cons for me.
  • The cost. At a minimum, it is $100K, probably more like $150K once you add in all the film stock needed, the thesis project etc.
  • I have a full application packet I need to put together! 😉

Am I missing any pros or cons? I am eager for input as I try to make this decision in the next couple of days.