Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

De-Palma_UK-quad-600x450

I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

de-palma

And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

brian-de-palma-steven-spielberg-and-martin-scorsese_large

This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

I have come to bury Hail, Caesar!

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.

So let it be with Caesar.

—William Shakespeare

hail-caesar-poster

The Coen brothers love the Golden Age of Hollywood, the era when studios ruled, actors did what they were told, writers remained in the background and sound stages were spectacular. To demonstrate their adoration, the brothers wrote, directed and produced a love letter that showed up on theatre screens this week as Hail, Caesar!.

Unfortunately, the love letter they wrote was less a Shakespearean sonnet than the heart-dotted-i gushings of a pre-pubescent girl.

Briefly, Hail, Caesar! is a week-in-the-life story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive for Capitol Pictures (think back to Barton Fink), a classic Hollywood studio. And like any good executive, Eddie spends his days and nights fixing the various issues that crop up around the studio, while trying to keep everything under wraps from the prying eyes of the gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton & Tilda Swinton).

Today, for example, Eddie is dealing with the unplanned pregnancy of twice-divorced swim star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) unwisely thrown into a high-society role, and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) during the final days of shooting for the studio’s largest production ever, the titular Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ.

brolin

And as Eddie scurries from location to location, equally supported and thwarted by the Hollywood clichés that surround him, he takes time to repeatedly visit confessional. Oh, and he is also being courted by Lockheed Martin, who want to make his life simpler while giving him buckets of money.

Now, one does not walk into a Coen brothers movie expecting something conventional, whether comedy or drama. You know that in many ways, you’ll experience theatre of the absurd. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t really live up to that standard. It is more theatre of the silly and mildly amusing.

If the main story of Eddie Mannix is the Christmas tree, the various subplots that infect his day are more the individual ornaments that decorate the tree rather than the branches that flesh it out. For the most part, the subplots are self-contained elements that go nowhere. Each one carries certain amusement—the movie does have its laugh-out-loud moments—and provides a fire against which Eddie must test himself, but even here, the fires aren’t particularly threatening and Eddie handles all of them with aplomb (if exhaustion).

clooney

And because the individual subplots—Eddie’s raisons d’etre—are so thin, the main plot is thin. I get that his journey through the events of the week is meant to symbolize Christ’s walk through the desert, and that Lockheed Martin is the Devil offering to make Christ King of the world. But I don’t care.

I really never invested in Eddie, and so the rest of the film is largely eye candy.

Now, as eye candy goes, this is some lavish stuff that leaves you with a high-end sugar rush. The brothers did a wonderful job of capturing the look and feel of those classic Hollywood films, right down to some of the ham-fisted acting and over-emoting for which the era is famed. And full credit on the song-and-dance number starring Channing Tatum.

tatum

But like any sugar rush, the dazzle wears off quickly, and I left the theatre a little empty.

I really wanted to like this movie. Like the Coen brothers, I have a rabid affection for the studio era and its stars—don’t get me started on Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, Hail, Caesar! was the equivalent of fine-dining at Costco…it only really whets your appetite for something better.

O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me.

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.

 

Other reviews:

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (Danny F Santos)

Hail, Caesar! sees Joel and Ethan Coen trade acid for honey: review (Peter Howell, Toronto Star)

Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ a satire that doesn’t come together (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Hollywood Hills – Los Angeles

And then, a friend drove me into the hills around Los Angeles, so I could do a little house-hunting for when I finally make it big.

See also: Graffiti and Signs, Tar Pits, and Farmer’s Market & The Grove

The First 10 Pages – Austin Film Festival

Lindsay Doran

For a new screenwriter trying to break his or her way into the film or television industries, one of the toughest tasks is getting someone to read your script. But even if you can get someone to crack that front page, the job isn’t done. You have to catch the reader’s attention and you may only have 30 or 10 or maybe a single page in which to do so.

At the 2013 Austin Film Festival in October, producer Lindsay Doran presided over a session called The First Ten Pages, which examined the opening pages of five scripts from people who had submitted to the screenplay competition. Below are some of her general thoughts on telltale trouble spots.

1. Boring title: From the cover itself, the title should grab the reader’s attention. Ideally, it will trigger a question in the reader’s mind or play with the reader’s imagination. Can you imply action or hint at something interesting inside. Don’t be vague or boring.

2. Story doesn’t begin: So often, the writer spends the first ten pages simply setting up the real world and its cast of characters that he or she forgets to actually start the action of the story. Without starting the story, you risk boring the reader.

3. Not actually a comedy: Presumably, she is talking here about comedy scripts that aren’t comedic. Funny is subjective, but is the movie actually a comedy or light drama, which Doran described as a bad place to be. If the writer is heading in that direction, perhaps it is better to write a drama that incorporates humour as a form of relief or due to specific characters.

4. Unlikeable main character: Not to say that the protagonist has to be a good person, but that the reader has no reason to root for him or her. Show us the human side of the protagonist that helps to explain why he or she is redeemable or needs the reader’s support.

5. Too many characters: One script Doran reviewed introduced 7 characters on the first page alone, which aside from being a lot to take in, left the readers with little sense of who the protagonist in the story was. As well, it was difficult to determine how these multiple characters related. Even with an ensemble piece, it is possible to introduce the characters more slowly, perhaps only introducing one subplot at a time.

6. Obstacles without stakes: While it is important to present the protagonist with challenges, the rising conflict, for the reader to engage in the story, those challenges must have important implications to the future of the protagonist. Delaying the protagonist from making it to the office is one thing, but make sure the reader understands why it is so important for the protagonist to make it to the office and what happens if the character doesn’t.

7. Confusing: Doran suggests there is a fine line between intriguing and confusing. If the reader finds him or herself lost while coursing through the opening 10 pages, he or she is unlikely to press further into the story.

8. Transparent exposition: On the flip side, make sure that any important bit of information is woven within the fabric of the narrative and/or dialogue and not simply plopped on the page. Clumsy, transparent exposition lifts the reader out of the story simply because it doesn’t flow and almost seems like a side thought.

9. Comedy based on a superficial world: Again, assuming a comedy, does the writer really understand the world she describes or is she simply aiming for cheap, cliché laughs at a well known environment and archetype? The Devil Wears Prada is a good example of a movie that went deep inside the fashion industry and avoided the superficial jokes about models, designers and photographers.

10. The three most terrifying words in the history of the American screenplay: Here Doran was being a bit playful, but wanted to make the point that it is difficult to get people to read a screenplay about a mature woman from outside the United States. Any one of those protagonist features is hard enough to promote, but to have all three is screenplay suicide, according to Doran.

Another year, another AFF Second Rounder

20th AFF poster

So, it would seem that rewrites work.

Last year, I entered my screenplay Tank’s into the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition and other than some amazing notes, it went nowhere in the competition. (My spec teleplay of The Big Bang Theory, however, reached the second round before bowing out.)

Fast-forward a year and four rounds of revisions, I just learned that the same screenplay made it to the second round of the competition before bowing out…Tank’s made it to the top 10% of its category, which feels pretty good considering the AFF received more than 8,600 screen- and teleplays this year, its highest submission rate ever.

Aside from the $200+ refund on my registration fee, what makes this really awesome is the esteem in which Second Rounders and higher are held at the screenwriting conference portion of the film festival. You see, the Austin Film Festival is more than just a whack of movie screens and Hollywood A-listers (like my own Toronto International Film Festival; on now). The AFF is also a 4-day screenwriters’ conference and love-fest, as 400+ introverts try to get just drunk enough to come out of their shells and commune with Hollywood screenwriters and film-makers.

If you are a screenwriter and have never been to the AFF, GO! It is worth the money.

Sure, some of the sessions amount to little more than hero-worship where you’ll hear questions like: “Remember that scene in X-Files when Mulder gave Scully that look? Did you write that, because that was awesome?” But most of the sessions are actually helpful discussions and learning opportunities with the film and television world’s elite writers…and best of all, these Gods not only stick around, but they’ll actually talk to you at the BBQ or in the bars. It’s like they give a shit about your shit.

Last year was my first AFF, and I was the introvert amongst introverts looking for the closest corner in which to nurse my beer or G&T. This year will be different. This year, I will move out of the corner and occupy the middle of the room…who knows, I may even talk to someone. (God, I need a drink!)

Oh, the Austin Film Festival runs October 24-31 from the Driskill Hotel.

PS If you think I’m bragging, my prowess is kept in check by a friend I met at AFF who had two Second Rounders and one Semifinalist screenplay in last year’s competition alone.

Weekend plans (re: boots)

Superscript You will believe that a screenwriter can try.

Image

Tonight, I go to see The Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman origin story…but unlike most nights when I go to a movie with friends, tonight I shall take notes, because tomorrow it’s back to the keyboard.

Tomorrow, I will write a screenplay for the next reboot of the Superman origin story.

And then next weekend, I will write a screenplay for the subsequent reboot of the Superman origin story.

And perhaps every weekend after that, I shall write screenplays for subsequent reboots of the Superman origin story.

For, having lately seen Batsmen, Stars Trek and now Supersmen, it would appear that Hollywood only wants what they already know or more importantly, what they already know sells. Originality, it would appear, is anathema in Lotus Land.

In the meantime, I throw my head back and yell: ZOD!!!!!!!!