Archive: Oct 2006

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.


Lots of filmmaking on NY streets

If you live in New York, you’ve probably noticed that there are more films being shot here than ever before. A couple of months ago, there were trailers and craft services on my street for days and I see more and more crews everywhere I go.

On Friday, right where Park Avenue hits the Met Life building, I saw a crew. I was able to get one shot off on my phone. You’ll see a dummy hanging upside down, suspended from a traffic light. Too bad I couldn’t get a photo with the face – it was gruesomely banged up!
Crew in NYC

This surge in NY-based movies is at least partly due to the fact that New York’s Mayor’s office does a *phenomenal* job of making it easy to shoot here. Even as a student, the process of getting permits to shoot was really easy.

I’m all in favor of more moviemaking in NYC — thank you Mr. Bloomberg!

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NY Magazine makes shorts available online

The New York Film Festival is going on and some of the movies I wanted to see sold out immediately. However, I’m also a huge fan of shorts.

NY Magazine selected 5 shorts that they loved and made them available online. I am not sure all of these would have been my picks, and the online video quality is not great, but they are worth checking out.

“Lump” is ridiculously frigthening.

“The Caretakers” is my favorite. Beautifully shot and acted.

You can see them all here.

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The Departed

The exceptional acting is what makes this overtly violent film exhilerating. Di Caprio and Matt Damon were great, but for me, the best actor by far was Mark Walhberg. His character was was so well written and the foul language flows off his tongue so smoothly that you truly love the character after the first 5 minutes.

Go watch it, but be ready for brutal, in your face violence, Scorsese style.

Good reviews here and here.

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Little Children

Little Children, written and directed by Todd Field is a film with a lot of potential. Set in an affluent suburb, it deals with the angst of 30-something folks who’ve seen the death of their youthful aspirations and endure lives confined the mundane.

Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) is married to Richard (Gregg Edelman). She wonders why she didn’t follow her passion for anthropology as she uncaringly cares for her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) and tolerates her husband who masturbates to a web porn star (with her panties over his head).

Sarah tolerates the supercilious mothers’ group at the playground, but life gets more interesting as the guy known at the “Prom King” Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) walks into the playground with this son Aaron (Ty Simpkins).

Brad is a law school grad who’s failed the bar twice and is supported by his documentary filmmaker wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). Kathy clearly wants him to pass the bar but instead of studying, Brad watches kids at the skate park on his way to the library. He also finds other time-wasting techniques like getting involved with the night football league. As a loving mother who works to put food on the table, Kathy spends the little time at home with Aaron always in her presence and it is clear that Brad and Kathy don’t have much of a relationship.

The film starts off with the neighborhood in a tizzy because sexual predator, Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved back into his mother’s house in the neighborhood. Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a former police officer with several psychological issues, makes it his life’s mission to hound Ronald and make his life miserable.

The film revolves around the life of the community and specifically the lives of Sarah and Brad, who, as they spend more and more time together at the playground and the swimming pool, realize that nap time for the kids means sex time for the adults.

Sarah’s desperate desire to escape her banal life is in full view when she compares herself with Madame Bovary and she escapes to her dream life with the gorgeous man who picks her (with her full figure and unkempt appearance) over his long-legged, full-breasted, elegant wife.

Sarah and LucyOverall, this is a film that tries really hard and falls short. The subject of film is of great interest to me since it deals with my peer group and how life happens to them/us. But you don’t truly empathize with any of the characters. You don’t get involved enough to empathize. There is a distance that is maintained throughout that makes it difficult to love this film.

The best parts of the film were the moments which involved Lucy and Sarah’s relationship – when Sarah comes home after a weekend with Brad to see “Welcome Home, Mommy” sign that she has no reaction to; when Lucy wakes up and tries to give Sarah the gift she made her as Sarah obsesses about her face in the bathroom. The most moving moment comes when Sarah loses Lucy in the playground in the middle of the night and panics. When she finally finds Lucy, she finally realizes how much she loves the little girl and as she sobs, Lucy comforts her. Those were the only moment when the film really hooked me.


SAIFF Day 5, Sunday

By the time day 5 rolled around, I was quite tired. So, I only managed to go to see just one film, but what a brilliant film!

MYSTIC INDIA by Keith Melton is a 45-minute IMAX film. It was the most visually stunning film of the festival. Using the story of Neelkanth, who walked the length and breadth of India for seven years (from 1792 to 1799), the film reveals India’s amazing geographic diversity.

This quote for the film’s website states it best.

Mystic India takes you through icy peaks to the cool blue Lake Mansarovar, into the wild jungles of Sunderbans and the rainforests of Assam, through barren deserts and to the silent shores of South India. Explore and learn from the majesty and mysticism of India’s art and architecture, music and dance, faces and festivals, customs and costumes which are brought to life on the giant screen.

Kajurahoh TajKailashGolden

Monks in prayerTemple bellsRameshwaramNeelkanth

Also, at no point in the film did they make it religious. It stuck to the realm of spirituality and this post (and discussion) on Sepia Mutiny confirms that.

If you have a chance to watch this film, do so – it is quite a moving experience to see the amazing diversity of India.

As an aside, Day 5 was also SAIFF’s Children’s Day and they did a really good job. The theater was packed with kids. Excellent marketing idea to dedicate a day for kids.