We recently finished production on our first feature movie. You see, Gus Edwards and I (Travis Mills) moonlight as filmmakers when we’re not too busy writing about movies.
But it’s many of the movies we love ignited the spark in me to make The Big Something. The story (briefly) revolves around the death of a record store owner. The cops call it a suicide but his loyal-loser clerk Lewis doesn’t buy it. He navigates the eccentric world that surrounds the store and its customers. With a hipster femme fatale named April as his partner, he hunts down the killer and becomes a neighborhood amateur detective.
We shot for fourteen days in Phoenix, Arizona and had the time of our lives. Here is a brief teaser trailer to give you a taste of our movie.
Now, I’d like to tell you a little about the movies that inspired this story.
I have to begin with Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox, the man who vies with John Ford in many cinephile’s minds as the top director of all time, and my personal favorite. Hawks’ His Girl Friday hit me like a ton of bricks a couple years ago. For whatever reason Bringing up Baby never caught my interest but Friday turned me into an instant Hawks devotee, with his rapid-fire dialog, tough characters, and unstoppable pace. I’d argue that it’s more of an action movie than a comedy.
I recommended that every actor in my cast watch it. Some of them took more from it than others. I was surprised to hear a couple describe it as seeming like a “play”. Though it’s based on one, His Girl Friday is pure cinema for me. Perhaps most of the camerawork is wide (which seems quite refreshing compared to the current no-brainer attitude of cut-cut-shot-reverse-shot) and the story takes place mostly in the newspaper office, but Hawks’ movie is all movie (not a play, not even like a play).
I love the insensitivity of the characters, how quickly they rebound from tragedy (a mid-movie suicide) and this sort of toughness followed me into some of our “grief” scenes in The Big Something. The script was full of all this crying and moaning about the deceased record store owner; somehow not one bit of it felt right, and so I steered the cast away from it as much as I could. There is too much moaning and groaning in modern film.
I was thrilled to hear Quentin Tarantino admit in a recent interview that he has requires his actors to watch His Girl Friday as well. I don’t always enjoy his work, but Quentin is such a lover of cinema and a fellow devotee of Hawks, I can’t help but admire him.
Before I move on, there is another Hawks film I went to for inspiration: The Big Sleep. One in a whole line of Noirs with Big titles that inspired ours, Hawks’ Marlowe mystery is a great example of good mysteries are less about the answers and more about the journey to find them. As the story goes, the “solution” to the crime in this film didn’t make sense to director Hawks or writer William Faulkner. When they went to the original source (pulp author Raymond Chandler) for answers, even he could not explain the plot holes of his own construction. Hawks took note: the movie worked regardless of the holes, because it was fast and fun and the characters were good.
I took that to heart with The Big Something. What did it matter if the story didn’t make sense, as long as the characters were good and true? And by true, I don’t mean real. I mean true: fun, rounded, full, and ripe for our imaginations. This flies in the face of our modern cinema, which makes realism its priority. Audiences and filmmakers are so focused on facts and inconsistencies, we’ve forgotten how to let us ourselves fall in love with fiction.
I specifically wanted Mina Mirkhah (who plays the female lead) to watch The Big Sleep for Lauren Bacall’s performance. Mina’s not a Hawks woman; I wouldn’t want her to be because only Hawks could find and shape those women. But she found that slight toughness with an underbelly of femininity. I believe she got a little help from Bacall.
Another enormous creative source for our film were the silents. I mean the great comedy geniuses: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Of the two, Keaton was our boy. I remember the day Michael Coleman (lead actor) and I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the opening of Sherlock Jr. I wanted to show Coleman how important Keaton’s whole body is to his performance, that every inch of him is either moving or still for a reason and it all contributes to a language of motion.
For some reason, acting seems to have become so much about reading the line in a sincere and natural manner. Our performers (except for a few, Nicolas Cage comes to mind) are so restricted and (the word surfaces once more) realistic. I favor the performances of old, sharp and funny, loud and expressive. I believe at least that both should be practiced. Mina Mirkhah commented at some point during our rehearsal process that my direction contradicted everything she’d been taught. My reaction: good.
There were times on set when an idea would occur to one of us. Doubt might set in for a moment. Michael Coleman would ask me, “Is this too much? Is this too ridiculous?” I would tell him that I’m the wrong person to ask. I am always in favor of trying something ridiculous, outlandish and downright out of the ordinary. If nothing else, I can say that I directed a movie by my instincts, cut from all intellectual self-consciousness and modern restriction. The ghosts of Hawks and Keaton were peering over my shoulder. I hope they had fun watching.
To learn more about The Big Something, please visit our blog: http://bigsomething.wordpress.com/
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) – Part #1
There was time some years ago when the name Ingmar Bergman was always part of the conversation when serious cinema was being discussed. His name even became part of the language of cinema criticism. Whenever a film was referred to as “Bergmanesque” everyone knew exactly what that meant. Today he is almost completely forgotten but nevertheless his influence is still being felt in the corridors of serious moviemaking. More than forgotten his works are now considered for the most part irrelevant. I have even read articles where critics and some academics have chastised themselves in public for being duped into taking Bergman’s work as seriously as they did. I can’t go along with this view. I loved Bergman’s work then and I love it even more now.
Granted he wasn’t a filmmaker for anyone who goes to the movies for light entertainment or escape. His films were often slow, rigorous and sometimes difficult to comprehend. One had to mentally work with a Bergman film and work hard too. For many filmgoers this was contrary from anything they ever heard or knew about film and how one interacts with the medium. This doctrinaire was essentially perpetrated by the Hollywood film industry which for more than half a century was the dominant means of film education most people ever got. So by their sights if it wasn’t being done the “Hollywood way” it wasn’t really a movie. I still run into people who feel that way and I understand it. What I have trouble understanding is that they’re not content to luxuriate in that belief but often feel the need to disparage or belittle anyone who doesn’t. So I have often gotten a “Why are you always looking at that crap?” from people who would like me to not only embrace their mode of film entertainment but also abandon what I’ve liked before. And when it comes to Bergman people don’t seem afraid to voice their displeasure out loud. I even saw it in a film one time. The wife of the leading character was going to see a Bergman film. Her husband comments to a friend: “I saw a Bergman film once; it was like watching paint dry.”
On the other end of the scale there were and still are those who felt that A) he was the greatest filmmaker of his time. Or B) He is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, filmmaker in the history of motion pictures. I don’t know if he was the greatest but I think that he is one of the greats right up there with Ford, Hitchcock, Griffith, Fellini, Welles, Renoir and a few others. And whenever I see a Bergman film I’m once again reminded of what a powerful and profound medium moving pictures (as they used to call it in the old days) could be in the hands of the right creator. A medium capable of asking universal questions about man’s journey through life which he often did with films like Wild Strawberries (1958), The 7th Seal (1958), Winter Light (1963) and The Silence from that same year. He was also one of the few directors capable of making films without conventional plots. Persona ((1966) is one example The Hour of the Wolf (1968) is another. But he was also a filmmaker of many sides because although he was primarily known as a director of serious, rigorous films that delved deeply into the psyche of their various characters, Bergman also made comedies that were both charming and sublime. One of his best Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was adapted into the Stephen Sondheim delightful musical “A Little Night Music”. Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) seemed to be directly influenced by that film as well. In fact Allen is very open about his admiration and love of Bergman’s works and many of his films reflect that.
Approaching a Bergman film one is likely to be a bit startled by the stark nature of its setting. And the unadorned manner in which the characters reveal themselves. The people in Bergman pictures are for the most part humans in pain searching for a release. And they sometimes find it through religion, sex and psychoanalysis. But it is never an easy journey either for the characters or the audience. But if you persevere or even accept the challenge of working your way through one of his films I guarantee you that you will be rewarded with one of the most stimulating mental exercise you’ve ever had in your movie going experience.
Some films that I would recommend besides the ones that were previously mentioned are: Cries and Whispers (1972) – my personal favorite, The Virgin Spring (1960), Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1968).
Theatre and film critic John Simon once wrote that in his most carefully considered opinion Ingmar Bergman was the greatest filmmaker the world had produced thus far… High praise indeed for a man whose works are virtually forgotten, Give him a try see what you think?
Debbie Reynolds and the Motion Pictures Archives
I was saddened at the news of Debbie Reynolds selling off her Hollywood Studios memorabilia collection of some 5000 pieces, but I quite understand. For years, going all the way back to the 70s I think, she has been collecting artifacts from what we now call “The Golden Age of Hollywood” hoping that she would be able to someday create a Museum that could house it all. The idea being that others would step up to the plate and aid her in this endeavor. But alas no one did. Or at least no one with enough money, power or clout. Nevertheless she heroically kept the faith…At one point she did have a place in her hotel in Las Vegas where several items in her collection were on display. I visited the place whenever I was in Las Vegas and found what she had interesting, fascinating and worthy of further study. My only wish was that there might be more.
It’s a shame that through no fault of hers, she couldn’t realize her dream. Because it wasn’t just hers alone it was for all of us who love movies and revere it as the definitive art of the 20th Century, the definitive American Art where roughly between 1920 and the 1960s Hollywood with all its faults and scandal and absurdities was a magical place like none other in our history. A real place where real people worked that took on the aura and legendary status of that mythical place Mount Olympus in ancient Greece.
The Hollywood Studios created what was called “The Great American Dream Machine” or “Dream Factory” and their product (for better or worse) defined our history, our character, our values and our spirit for the rest of the world. This legacy and how it was brought about deserved to be treasured and made available for all to look at and meditate upon in a protected environment such as a museum. The kind that Debbie Reynolds dreamed about and worked so hard to accomplish.
The same way that jazz defines New Orleans and America so does The Hollywood Film Industry, especially the old “Studio System” define both California and the USA. Shame on us for not realizing and appreciating that. Shame on us for not supporting Ms. Reynolds in her endeavor. I believe our culture will be poorer for it.
Elvis Presley: The Actor
It was and has been my contention for a long time that Elvis Presley was an underrated actor whose thespic abilities had they been allowed to develop via interesting and challenging parts might’ve turned him into a film actor of considerable talent. But he was essentially victimized by his success as a singer. So as a result he was never given the chance either by the people who managed his career, Col. Tom Parker especially or the studios that produced his films. Or for that matter by the film critics of the day. Right from the start with his first film Love Me Tender (1956) they went after him with knives and arrows. And after that every time one of his films was released it afforded them the opportunity to show how caustic and witty they could be at his expense. What did they expect? That this young rockabilly singer would reveal himself to be as skilled as Olivier or naturally gifted as Marlon Brando? I suspect not. I think they were just trying to punish him for being so damned successful as a singer/performer. There is a kind of snobbery among critics that unattractively manifests itself whenever a phenom like Presley comes along.
I mean here was a young man with no dramatic training making a genuinely honest effort in his first outing and I might add achieving some very affecting moments in the process. But it was very clear that he was new and unsure of himself. But with his next film Loving You (1956) he became more relaxed and more sure of himself. That film was followed by Jail House Rock (1957) where a lot of his pent up energy and rage found an outlet that was entertaining as well as dramatically compelling. Then came King Creole (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, for which I think he gave the best performance of his career. Then Military service intervened. G.I. Blues (1960) was his next film and for me the turning point. After that most of his films were tailor made comedic inanities designed to showcase his musical abilities in undemanding and not very imaginative ways. All that seemed to be required were some pretty girls, a lifeless script, a few musical numbers and Mr. Presley. Yes there were a few exceptions like Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, ( both released in 1960) but the majority were what I call travelogue films with titles like It Happened at the World’s Fair, Fun in Acapulco, Blue Hawaii and Paradise Hawaiian Style where even he seemed to be bored by the lack of challenge in the roles he was given. The one exception was Viva Las Vegas (1964) the film he made with the young and vivacious Ann-Margret. They apparently sparked something in each other that brought the film to life despite the stupidity of the story. But after that it was business as usual until both Presley and the public grew weary and he stopped making fiction films.
But while all this was taking place I quietly kept hoping that somewhere along the way someone would take the chance and offer him a dramatic role that had some teeth in it. The two I thought of at the time were Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending retitled The Fugitive Kind (1960). Marlon Brando played the role and was good in the film but I still feel that Presley was more naturally suited to the character and would’ve surprised everyone by acquitting himself well in the part. Another was Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Horton Foote’s adaptation of his play Travelling Lady. The role went to Steve McQueen but again I thought it should’ve gone to Presley. Or at least offered to him for the same reasons stated before.
Now all this was wishful thinking on my part because I don’t know if Presley or his management people would’ve considered the parts even if they were offered. And I also appreciate the fact that Presley’s reputation was such that an announcement in any of those projects would’ve been met with derision and laughter that would’ve undercut the seriousness of their creators’ intent.
I know that we can’t undo the past but I always find it interesting to speculate on “what might have been”. In the case of Presley and the two films mentioned I still think that his future and his reputation would’ve been considerably altered had he been given the chance to prove that his acting abilities went way beyond the roles he was given. But we’ll never know. So all this is just idle dreaming on my part. But still it’s fun to think about.
Sidney Lumet – Filmmaking notes
I wrote about Sidney Lumet right after reading the notice of his passing. In that article I spoke about his book MAKING MOVIES that I found so useful and instructive. I recommend it to anyone who has more than a casual interest in films. What I’d like to do here is list some of the more salient points that I have extracted from the book. Here they are.
– Any movie is by definition an artificial creation.
-Making a movie is about telling a story. The first question is: What is this story about? The second is: Now that I know the story, how shall I tell it?
– Making a movie is like creating a mosaic. Each set up is a tile. You color it, shape it, polish it as best you can. You’ll do six or seven hundred of these, maybe a thousand. Then you literally paste them together and hope it’s what you set out to do. But if you expect the final mosaic to look like anything, you better know what you’re going for as you work on each tile.
– The nature of movie making is repetition.
– Movies are never shot in sequence.
– Actors are a major part of any movie.
– The most important element of any actor’s performance is confidence.
– In any movie one of the principal stars is the camera.
– Nothing helps the actor more than the clothes he/she wears.
– The most fundamental photographic choice most directors have to make is what lens to use for a particular shot and why.
In other notes he says that:
– All good work comes from passion.
– Creative work is very hard and some sort of self deception is necessary in order to begin.
– One needs to remember that no scene is ever an entity unto itself. It is always being placed in relation to what comes before and what comes after.
– One of the most important moments in any movie is the ending.
– Movies are the only art form that uses people to record something that is literally larger than life.
– All good work is self revelation.
On music in film he says:
– I always ask, what function should the score serve?
-How can it contribute to the basic question “What is the picture about?”
And finally he says that:
The director’s job is to care and be responsible for every frame of every movie that he/she makes.
– I want the score to say something that nothing else in the picture is saying.
Lumet wasn’t just a craftsman he was also a visionary and thinker. He is gone but fortunately we have this book he authored (along with the films that he made) as a legacy to his excellence as an artist. And as a text we can visit and revisit from time to time in order to understand and appreciate this graceful and sublime art we call the movies.