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December 28 at 8:09am

Places To Film #4: Cows & Machines

There certainly has not been enough good movies about cows.  And surely I could find a few better ways to milk this photo.  But whether it’s the bovine mutilation spectacular we all have been waiting for, or perhaps a post-modernist updating of “Heidi”, somethings got to be done with this.  I mean, where else can you milk eight heifers in a single sitting?

If you want to order one, or just get a price quote you can here.


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December 20 at 11:14am

Title Design Roundup

Among the things that suffer on under-budgeted films (which is all I have had the privilege to make) are the title sequences.  You look at the great ones, and they tell you that you are entering another world.  They speak about possibility.  They reframe you POV to focus on a different sort of detail.  They heighten your focus.  

I am pretty sure my favorite title design on my films is The Ice Storm.  That was designed by Bureau, the now defunct design house run by Marlene McCarty who still does all of Killer Films titles. The title sequence they did for Cindy Sherman’s “Office Killer” (which I executive produced) is particularly clever pairing of design and cost control.  With each watching of ADVENTURELAND though, I grow more fond of its titles, which is a sweet and simple pairing with Yo La Tengo’s score (if I do say so myself) and amusement park lights.
Titles are particularly tricky though because of where they come in the process.  No one likes to focus on them until the picture is locked, otherwise they run the risk of designing something that no longer fully fits the film.  At that stage though, there are usually money worries, so you are designing to fit a budget and not from inspiration.  We all have some room for improvement in working with titles.
There are a lot of sites out there though, that help me realize just how high the bar is though.
Not Coming collected the sequences of Saul Bass, generally regarded as the best there ever was.  I could happily have these playing on a continual loop in my house.  If you’ve now got your Bass need peaking, you can also check out the Beta of Bass On The Web, and his logos.
Two sites totally devoted to titles are Forget The Film, Watch The Titles and The Art Of The Title Sequence.  Retinart recently interviewed the guys behind the The Art OTTS.  So if you have sworn off shopping and want to delight your eyes and mind, check out all these sites.
And if you are in the need for a psychotronic fix, check this out — albeit it is just the cards (hat tip MCN).


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December 19 at 12:05pm

Truth & Accuracy Of The Historical Record

Deep Throat died yesterday.  Maybe after he saw Frost/Nixon and realized it was another bit of Hollywood playing fast and loose with history.  Elizabeth Drew has a pretty scathing piece in the Huffington Post on the film’s distortions.

I have been involved in a fair amount of film adaptations of novels.  The general rule of thumb is to keep the “spirit” of the novel in place.  We feel to change structure, scenes, even characters.  But novels aren’t the historical record.
Bio-pics too are a strange breed.  No one’s life can be told in 90 minutes.  So again, as a filmmaker, you are chasing your subject’s essence.  Often instead of the all encompassing tale, it makes sense to find a particular incident to stand in for the whole.
Yet filmmakers (and marketers) find it so enticing to say “Based on a true story”.  Using those words, what obligations do you have?  Films can be propaganda and historical revisionism.  And yet they are always reluctant to broadcast that intent at the head of the movie.  Having seen A BEAUTIFUL MIND and read much about it later, I could not help but be suspicious of FROST/NIXON, so I was waiting for the articles like Drew’s to start to hit.
It doesn’t matter that Frost/Nixon moves some scenes around (though it’s not always clear why), and engages in some invention. But such a gross misrepresentation of such important events — roughly seventy percent of the population is too young to have been aware of Watergate — about a figure over whom there is still serious debate, in the name of entertainment and profits, to my mind, crosses the line of dramatic integrity and is dishonorable.
The audience expects the “truth” with weighty historical subjects.  Even more so, they generally accept such films as truth.  Filmmakers need to find ways to contextualize their distortions and help audiences to filter what is being presented.  David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens” did this by pulling all dialogue from the historical record — we recognize that the context of these statements had to have been altered, but that recognition allowed us to look at the substance of the dialogue and characters with a new critical eye.  
With both F/N & W., I felt the filmmakers did not desire this positioning of the record with the audience, and I spent each film wondering what to make of it, whether I could trust it.  Stating that a film is “Based On A True Story” does not help to establish trust between it and the audience; quite the opposite: we have to suspect it all the more.  We need a clear filter when someone wants to serve the truth.  Filmmakers have to ask themselves more why the audience should believe them — and again we have been shown why they shouldn’t instead.


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December 17 at 1:30pm

The Search For Emotional Truth: SW30

a guest post from filmmaker Stephen Kijak:

So Ted posed a questions to me for this blog and asked me to relate it to my recent doc, “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man”. “How did I find my subject’s emotional truth in the documentary form?” Well, being a firm believer in the form/content relationship, I was surprised how much I fought the form on the way to finding it, and thus the emotional truth it unlocked. I had set out to make a more elliptical, formally challenging film about this musician, Scott Walker – himself known to be something of an enigma. It wasn’t going to be a doc at all at first – I had conceived of a screenplay structured around a suite of Walker’s swirling wide-screen 60′s “tenement dramas”…(bad idea).

When I heard that the J.D. Salinger of rock was about to make his first album in a decade, it seemed the best opportunity to make a film, and of course, it had to be a doc. With a figure who had slipped into the unknown like this, what better than the truth of the documentary to shine a light? But then as the limits of access to this reclusive mystery-man became more and more of a problem (I wanted two weeks in the studio, they said, maybe a day! In the end I got two, plus a day of still photography.) And probably only one hour-long interview (never enough!)

But that, I discovered, was actually the key. And absence is still a presence in some ways. And the delayed contact – the interview was the very last thing I shot – proved to be a blessing. As I gathered material – lots of interviews at first which made me nervous because it started looking like an extended, artier Behind-the-Music (but without the sex, drugs, and rock and roll!) – I could barely sense the actual narrative. And we found that he had done such a good job of keeping to himself over the years, that half our interview subjects would ask ME for information about him…”Is he still cute?” asks a once-smitten Lulu, “Well, I must confess. I don’t know anything.” said Bowie at the start of our interview, “Who knows anything about Scott Walker?” Great. Where is my film?

But as we built the film around the empty space that should have been occupied by its subject, it made the actual needs of the narrative so much more evident. And eventually, with the accumulation of interview and archive material, a sense of intimacy with him developed in my mind – I felt like he really was taking on a life inside the film.

So when we did sit down to do the interview, and eventually got it back to the edit – the form emerged, almost imposed itself on the film. To slip him into his own narrative, we started at the beginning, and the rest fell in line in a very linear pattern. Enigmatic ellipses went out the window. A man and his work are revealed and the mystery, built up, examined, and contradicted over the course of a life, remains at the center of the film, made stronger by the simplicity with which it was eventually, formally, put together. I end the film with a slightly enigmatic sequence that starts with the camera zooming slowly into a key-hole…lock picture, unlock film, and hopefully, leave the viewer with their own keys to understanding the messages and lessons in the life and work of Scott Walker.

(“Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” opens on Wednesday December 17th for one week only at the IFC Center. www.scottwalkerfilm.com)


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December 13 at 5:13pm

Thinking Aloud About Sound

FilmInFocus is the rare studio-sponsored site that is not all about promoting their product (well, not exclusively).  It fosters a community of cineastes.    

FIF has a featured article on David Lynch On Sound.  I love articles like this because frankly sound is always an afterthought for me on my films and I have been trying to change that.  Finally setting up a home theater sound system was a big step forward this year.  Lynch is always a fun read (and a funner watch) because his mind is one of a kind.
It also made me recall this great article by Antonioni on NYC In Sound (with a forward by Walter Murch no less!).


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December 5 at 12:38pm

The Benefits Of Less

For my tastes, I have long encouraged the practice of getting away from the cinema of excess and getting back to the compromise.  I have always learned a great deal by bouncing back and forth between budgets.  Truth be told, for me it is out of necessity, not strategy.  Yet for directors, the proof has come that it should be part of the process.

Time and time again, filmmakers have rejuvenated themselves, their work, and their careers by dropping their budgets and picking up some freedom in exchange.
Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh have all done this, with Crouching Tiger, Y Tu Mama, Gerry/Elephant, and Schizopolis.  Coming off of The Hulk, Great Expectations, Finding Forester, and The Underneath respectively, these subsequent “indie” productions yielded great work (generally) and a major creative reboot.
And now we get to witness this again with Darren Aaronofsky’s The Wrestler, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, and Jonathon Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.  These are three of the year’s best films.  This formula could also be applied to Van Sant’s Milk (which I hope to see this weekend) but now the back and forth between budgets and control appears to be part of Gus’ process.
Ann Thompson pointed this out to everyone in the business today so hopefully we can witness a few others gaining from the new poverty.  Anne includes my other fave of the year, Ari Fohlman’s Waltz With Bahir, as another benefiter of this approach.


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