Category:making movies

Excellent story in the Guardian by Chris Payne about a film school outside Havana whose students' production--an actually independent feature film-- doesn't officially exist, but nonetheless is getting plugs for Sundance. There's more story here to be told.

Also from Havana, the Biennial. Maria Finn's Times article has an interesting angle: the economic impact of international art world attention on Cuban contemporary artists. Even emerging artist-level prices (ie, in the thousands or low five figures) enable artists to live like kings in the dollar-starved Cuban economy. But collector friends who just came back from Havana noticed how outsize success--or at least the trappings of it on the ground, which also often signal collaboration or acquiescence with the regime--polarizes artists.

From what I've heard, and from what Blake Gopnik's ecstatic survey in the Post says, the quality of the art was incredible. But alongside the disparities it creates, an internationalized Cuban contemporary art market runs the risk of exploitation. In the Outsider Art market, this meme is already too well established: art world slickster "discovers" a naive, native genius, buys up all his work, establishes some "gatekeeper" stranglehold on his production, and manipulates the prices to her own--not the artist's-- advantage.

Hide your peasant bread, people. the half-assedly Atkinsing Neil Labute just landed in New York, and he's loaded for bear claws. Yesterday in his Slate diary, Labute wrote about an eating a meeting for his next project, a screen adaptation of Vapor, the second novel from Amanda Filipacchi.

Amanda Filipacchi picked me up at the 10th Street Lounge many years ago, and we went on a date. We saw an HBO-sponsored movie at Bryant Park. It was pleasant, but there was no real connection. We parted in the park, and I went alone to meet friends for drinks at the Royalton. Some time later, she re-entered my life as the rather serious girlfriend of my now-wife's physics post-doc colleague at Columbia.

Without going into details, I have a feeling she found the right writer to adapt her book. [3/23/05 update: Of course, I could be totally wrong. Amanda emailed recently and alluded to the collaboration in the past, not-happening tense.]

Finally, POV is back, and in a relevant way. By relevant, I don't just mean talking money. But that's what she's doing, with a post about fundraising for independent films. Liz reviews the Money Matters issue of The Independent, which is published by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers.

Gus Van Sant's the center of the universe, you see, or you will see, by the end of this post. [Before, I'd been forced to the alarming conclusion that the universe revolved around Norman Mailer, so you'll understand if i'm eager for a replacement.]

Anyway, if you were dazzled by my groundbreaking interpretation of Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Gerry you'll be double-dazzled by Scott Macaulay's excellent interview in Filmmaker Magazine with Van Sant on the inspiration, ideas, and making of Gerry, which was published, oh, in December 2002.

Gerry Still, Savides/Van Sant, image:

GVS talks about the film's connection to video games, especially the appeal of the camerawork and sound design of Tomb Raider (GVS hittin' it home: "In some ways, Gerry is BČla Tarr fused with Tomb Raider!" Not quite "Dude, where's my car? by Samuel Beckett," but still a good quote.) Turns out he cut dailies together in the desert using iMovie and edited the film on FinalCutPro, one of the first 35mm projects to do so.

But even more than the video game visual language, GVS talks about the the cut and editing's relation to the "industrialization of cinema," to the codification of a process of storytelling. Sounds a bit like Peter Greenaway to me. Except that while Greenaway's preaching, Van Sant's moving things forward.

According to the gracious Steve Gallagher, there's also a Macauley-on-Van Sant interview in the current issue of Filmmaker, but it's not online. I'm scheduled to have those insights in about a year. Stay tuned. The moral here, kids, is don't let your subscription lapse, or you'll end up like me, writing on movielit's third base, thinking I hit a triple.

A nice seque for my next topic, GWB.'s sponsoring a presidential campaign ad contest called Bush in 30 Seconds. Make a TV ad about George W Bush, and if it wins the popular voting--and passes muster with the celebrity jurors--MoveOn Voter Fund will air it nationwide around the time of the State of the Union address. Among the jurors: Gus Van Sant.

filmmaker mag coverThree ways to subscribe to Filmmaker, which, as you know, is published jointly by IFP/NY and IFP/LA (and which enters my Sofia Coppola magazine cover collection as #2:

  • Subscribe for $18.00 through Amazon (and throw a couple of quarters into my guitar case)
  • Subscribe for $18 and buy back issues (like Winter 2002) directly from Filmmaker (and throw all your quarters at the mag that deserves them).
  • Join IFP/NY, and your sub is included (the more quarters the better).

  • September 29, 2003

    Fixing K Street

    It's the dialogue, stupid. (Or is that, "It's the dialogue. Stupid."?) After only three episodes, I'm getting fed up with the uncertain, equivocating, sometimes borderline incoherent dialogue that constitutes the majority of HBO's K Street. I know it's improvised, and that non-actors are supposed to be non-acting, but unless the unacknowledged agenda of the producers is to show that no one in Washington knows what the hell they're talking about--ever--something needs to be done. Politicians are expected to deliver content-free platitudes or sermons on camera; everyone else (except for the vaguely metrosexual Californian) needs to have something--anything--to say.

    Seriously, if these people are expecting to get paid to consult, they need to cough up some value-added, and I haven't seen any since Carville delivered his one-liner to Howard Dean in Episode One. You don't need full-blown scripts, but Sunday should be Googleday for the K Street crew, yielding some talking points for each character.

    Why, even the most cursory surf of anti- and pro-RIAA sites and articles would've yielded a meatier discussion and plausible pitch for the RIAA's business than the K Streeters put out. Ditto the Saudi thing this week. I hope "Nobody reads beyond the cover of Time magazine" is just a line, not a scriptwriting strategy. Even so, waving it around and calling it story is like putting your textbook under your pillow and hoping it'll soak in while you sleep.

    Some other suggestions:

    1) If you want to play an inside game, play inside, fellas. For example, in the music sharing episode, why did Francisco make the appointment for the pitch? Wouldn't it more intriguing if the stalker-y lesbian lobbyist knew someone at the RIAA? Or if she was expected to know someone, but she had to beg off because of undisclosed restraining orders?

    2) Speaking of inside games, why not turn up the heat with some actual headlines? Check out Talking Points Memo, where Josh Marshall's been posting up a storm about actual Republican lobbyists, who, like K Street star Mary Matalin, just left the administration, but who are setting up shops to help companies get sweet rebuilding contracts in Iraq. Nice work if you can get it, and you don't have to worry about ratings.

    3) Of course, you could combine #2 and 3: The Register reported in April that Hilary Rosen is rewriting Iraq's copyright laws.

    There. That's five value-adds right there. Just call my people if you'd like some more.

    Anne Thompson has a very informative artlicle in this month's Filmmaker Magazine about the hustle to get Lost in Translation made.

    Sofia Coppola's first finished draft of her script--the one they used to raise money--was only 70 pages long, which freaked a lot of funders out. Still, such a short script (1 page = 1 minute is the filmmaking-as-usual rule of thumb) suited Coppola's (and Bill Murray's) improvisational, intuitive shooting approach. [For a writer-director, the link between script and location--and editing--almost inevitably breaks with convention. I find that I overwrite, pare down while shooting, and then hack away while editing, all in order to end up with something close to the feel of my original concept. -g]

    "Once Coppola finished her script, she and her ICM agent, Bart Walker, decided to seek financing for the film 'Jim Jarmuschń style.' In this model, the filmmaker licenses distribution rights in various overseas territories individually, cobbling together enough foreign presales to make the film without the controlling influence of a single territory or U.S. domestic distributor," Thompson writes. [It's worth noting that Walker is also Jarmusch's agent, so he knows from hustling for independent film money. -g]

    They pre-sold Japan (where The Virgin Suicides was a hit, and where Coppola's own brand is pretty strong because of her fashion line, Milk Fed), France, and Italy, then got the rest of the budget (which Thompson puts at $4mm, but I've also heard $3mm) from Focus International. Then, they backed into the US distribution deal with Focus Features.

    Another interesting aspect, one that stands a director's (and producer's) hair on end: Even after Bill Murray agreed to do the film, the production didn't get a signed contract with him. Wes Anderson told Sofia and Ross Katz not to worry (and obviously, Bill showed up and rocked, just as planned), but it's pretty amazing that they got a completion bond--much less all the dough--without having their lead signed.

    Akira Kurosawa in a Suntory Reserve whiskey commercial, circa late 1970's

    Nothing wrong with bigname film folks making commercials. Errol Morris (whose The Fog of War I just saw and will write about soon) directed the Apple Switch ads. Swedish master Ingmar Bergman made some cake by selling cakes of soap. Hell, Spike Lee's got a whole agency, SpikeDDB, to sell out through. And as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation shows, Japanese commercials are a great way for stars to pay their jumbo mortgages.

    Coppola mentioned she got the idea for Bill Murray's character from a photo of her father and Akira Kurosawa on the set of a Suntory whiskey commercial. I tracked them down and watched them; here's my brief review.

    Nine of the commercials for Suntory Reserve can be seen on Kurosawa, a generally excellent, if conventional, documentary DVD on his career [original PBS site]. (They're kind of hidden, but has the path.)

    First, it's worth noting: Kurosawa doesn't direct, he both directs and stars in the ads, like fellow whiskey shill Sean Connery. Decked out like the Asian neighbor at an Ice Storm key party, the sunglassed Kurosawa alternately wanders, broods, or holds court from a wingback chair with a gang of white men. Every piece of typically intense classical music you can think of plays over the largely dialogue-free spots.

    There's a whole batch of them shot in Russia: on the bank of the ice-choked Neva River in Leningrad; an escalator in the Moscow subway; a whiskey klatsch in some guy's dacha. These commercials have a caught-on-the-fly feeling, as if Kurosawa just let a 16mm film crew tag along with him for a couple of days, but wouldn't actually do anything, except drain a lowball now and then. They're little whiskey documentaries, tracking the bottle into its natural habitat.

    A couple of others, shot in Japan, are more staged, and cast Suntory as the muse and great lubricant of directorial creativity. Kurosawa shuffles contemplates some papers, or looks out over the sea, envisioning. In the phoniest spot, a narrator reads inanely inspirational copy while Kurosawa sits "on the set" of Kagemusha. He pretends to give direction to a flock of samurai extras, who cluster around him like a JV football squad in a lockerroom pep talk. My favorite, though, is the most pared down: a single tight shot of the director contemplating his glass. It's also the only one I could get a screen capture of, which works out, too.

    The DVD has no information about the ads (I figure they're hidden because someone, somewhere, wisely figured "filmography/interviews/awards/liquor ads" would look funny on DVD menu.), and no one but Sofia connects Coppola pËre to them in any way. But there are still clues, at least to the ads' dates. Kurosawa made Dersu Uzala in Russia in 1973-4, which was followed in 1980 by Kagemusha. [His masterpiece, Ran, came later, in 1985. ]

    The decade before Dersu Uzala was rough for Kurosawa, who got fed up with studio pressure to keep cranking out samurai flicks after the 1965 Akahige (Red Beard). His production company was involved in making Tora! Tora! Tora!, but pulled out after complications. And Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971. But then Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Still, with a film every five years or so, Coppola's suggestion that the director needed money sounds plausible. The campaign spans at least six years and two productions. While in the ads, Kurosawa--who was nicknamed Ten-no (The Emperor) because of his demeanor on the set--seems like he can't be bothered, it's possible these commercials helped keep Kurosawa afloat until he could get to Ran--and a whole subsequent body of work. I'll drink to that.

    [Related: David at GreenCine just posted some Kurosawa links and info, including screenings at BAMcinematek.]

    [Update: I just watched the actual NHK/BBC/WNET documentary on Kurosawa, and I was missing half the fun and most of the point. Not only does it mention Kurosawa directing and starring in the commercials in order to make money in the lengthening interval between films, it liberally uses clips from the commercials themselves throughout the film.

    Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

    Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

    As for Francis Coppola, well, there he is. He appears in silent color footage that's almost certainly from the Suntory ads (it matches a couple of others in look and location) on the set of Kagemusha, which, it turns out, he and George Lucas helped raise the money for. In 1980, their stars were rising and they felt a debt to Kurosawa (Lucas cited his work as an inspiration for Star Wars [Don't try to pin the sequels on him, though, George. - ed.]). Sofia's more right than wrong, it turns out. Good stuff.]

    A friend showed me a website for a DC spa that was so hilariously and transparently metrosexual, I almost posted it here last week (at the risk of either reigniting the whole tired metrosexual discussion, or, far more likely, being woefully behind the curve). But I resisted.

    Until I saw the Grooming Lounge make a huge, sponsor-like appearance on tonight's premiere episode of K Street. [F'rinstance, the Lounge pitches a manicure with this butched up rationale: "After all, your mitts are the first thing you offer a prospective boss or wife."] Then within minutes, the character appears in Thomas Pink, the source of dandy's shirts now that Britches is no more.

    Forget all my speculation about Trent Lott's cynical opposition to K Street: he's just shoring up his rough-handed, unibrow-sporting anti-metrosexual base.

    September 14, 2003

    K Street: A Man with a Camera

    HBO's K Street is shot in DV and makes the most of the saturated blues (outdoor) or yellows (indoor) that come from shooting with available light. Even though the processes are very different, the photography is reminiscent of Traffic. That's because director Steven Soderbergh used the same cinematographer--one Peter Andrews--on both projects.

    On the Traffic DVD, Soderbergh criticizes Andrews' work, wondering aloud why someone didn't fire him. Still, Andrews is credited with the camera work on every Soderbergh film since then. Surprising? Hardly. Peter Andrews is Soderbergh. [FYI, Mary Ann Bernard, who edited of Solaris, is Soderbergh, too.]

    This nameplaying is amusing but pales in comparison to Robert Rodriguez, who does (and credits himself with) seemingly every above- and below-the-line job on his films. But it takes on added significance for K Street. When Trent Lott warns ominously of "chaos if we have film crews setting up all over the place [aka Capitol Hill]," he's essentially banning a man with a camera.

    [The Times' Allessandra Stanley is unimpressed with the show. She tries to pre-spin it into irrelevance with a too-studied, too-jaded disdain for spin and fictionalizing that sounds about as believable as some of the show's one-take, improvised dialogue.]

    Apparently, only real lobbyists have unfettered access to the halls of power.

    TMN points to a Roll Call story that the Trent Lott, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee has deemed shooting of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's new HBO series K Street a "commercial or profit-making purpose" and banned them from using any Capitol locations.

    One solution: get the crew--and the talent-- some press passes and slap some CNN logos on those cameras. The show's on-the-run, "shoot and air it" schedule is designed to make it an influential voice in the real world's political debates. If things go according to HBO's plan, DC's power elite would start spending their Sundays parked with George Clooney instead of George Stephanopoulos.

    good enough to praise J-Lo for, image:soderbergh.netOr maybe the solution's so obvious, it takes the subtlety-free Lott to point it out. After all, K Street is about lobbying, that dark hotel bar of an industry* where "politics as usual" chats up "commercial and profit-making" before they head off to bed together.

    K Street features cameos from real politicians, including--according to the report--John McCain, Hilary Clinton, and Orrin Hatch--senators who were, coincidentally, the #1, 2, and 5 recipients of cable TV industry campaign contributions in the 2000 election year. McCain and Clinton each got well over $100k, and continue to get mad money from cable. Lott was #9, with $20,500, and he hasn't gotten a dime since. You do the math.

    Rather than a challenge unique to shooting in Washington, Lott's disruption tactics are business as usual. If anything, they're similar to problems the LA film industry's already familiar with: extortion artists who follow film crews around with leaf blowers, angling for a few hundred bucks to go away. How'd they address that problem? By getting the Calif. state senator from Warners and Disney Burbank to introduce a bill that bans the disruption of location filming. I have a feeling this'll work out just fine.

    * The seduction scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Soderbergh's Out of Sight is one of the greatest sex scenes ever. Read my posts about it here and here.

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    Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

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