Sunday 30 June 2013

THE LOTTERY OF BIRTH Documentary Release / Interview With JOSHUA VAN PRAAG

THE LOTTERY OF BIRTH finally has a release. This is a film I've been championing since its Film Festival debut at Raindance last year.

The thing about independent films is that you never really know if you're going to get the chance to see them again. In fact, even getting to see them in the first place is uncertain. Raindance had 2700 submissions last year. That 'The Lottery of Birth' broke through is a sign of its quality. This is my favourite documentary of the last year and a film that I believe to be essential viewing. 

I spoke yesterday with Raindance founder Elliot Grove who recalled the impact it had on the festival:

"Audiences were stunned. Lottery of Birth is part of the new wave of social documentaries that force us to question and consider the basic tenants of our civilisation and how we are being manipulated by by corporations and government."

Here's the trailer. I'm honoured to have been quoted in it, alongside Colin Firth and Alan Rickman:

I think there is a common misconception in the film industry today. There is the belief that people have shorter attention spans, that they need bite-size information in as quick and simple a way as possible, whereas I feel what people are really after, is GREATNESS. They're BORED of the same old crap. We skip through the channels and dance from track to track on the iPod because we desperately want to be blown away. It's like when you find a box-set of a show you love, you'll watch it for hours. 

What I loved about 'The Lottery of Birth' is that it was packed with ideas. It wanted to make you think. It had a point of view, yet it is also saying to you, find your own point of you. Look up, look around, and ask questions. 

The film has been released through a new online platform, No, I've never heard of them either. They've just launched, and Elliot Grove is excited about what it means: 

"The fact that Lottery of Birth is available online proves how far film distribution has changed and how the filmmakers have engaged with new financial  web models in order to bring this, and other very important films to the discerning audiences everywhere."

At the time of writing, 'The Lottery of Birth' is 3rd of the iTunes download chart, which is an astonishing achievement, which goes to show the power of independent film. Every blog that reviews it, every person that tweets about it; every single purchase through iTunes; it makes a huge difference. 

Joshua van Praag, the co-director and director of photography of the project, has been keeping me in the loop over recent weeks about the film's journey. Yesterday, I interviewed him in some more detail. Read on for a fascinating insight into the making of 'The Lottery of Birth': 

Interview with Joshua van Praag
The Lottery of Birth
Photo By Josh Boss
Kid In The Front Row: What I love about your documentary is that it isn't dumbed down, the audience has to pay attention -- I think in many ways that is a risk you've taken, as filmmakers. But it's also important, especially considering the content of the film. How did you approach the making of this film, knowing that it was going to be seen in cinemas but also that it is in many ways a talking-heads-documentary? 

Joshua van Praag: We're thrilled that the film has received a theatrical release but it certainly wasn't planned that way. We began with very low expectations in terms of traditional distribution. Our first thought was that, as a series, the ideal platform would be television but we knew that it would be tough to get 'Creating Freedom' on the box, partly because of the inherent political bias that exists throughout the world of TV networks and among the gatekeepers that program content, and partly because of the format we decided on. 

From early discussions with the series creator and my co-director, Raoul Martinez, I understood that he wanted the ideas to be the stars of the film and that the interviews - the backbone of the narrative - would be the vessel for the transmission of these ideas. The choice to go with a black background and a to-camera eye line was in that sense a very deliberate one: we wanted to isolate the ideas from a physical environment and have them connect directly with the viewer. 

Our choices were also constrained by cost: the films have been almost entirely self-funded on a shoe-string budget. Maintaining a simple format meant that we were able to make them in such a way that we could fulfill all of our ambitious goals and still complete the work without having to wait for outside funding or compromise creatively. The interesting thing is that when we premiered the film in London at Raindance lots of people said the same thing: that the film didn't feel like a talking heads piece to them. I think the strength of the ideas and their tendency to challenge and provoke the viewer means that people feel really engaged when they see it.

How do you approach editing interviews with someone like Howard Zinn? It must be heartbreaking to have to cut anything out -- but I imagine you have hours of unused footage. 

Our time with Howard was a real highlight for me. It was shot only six months before his death and he was not in good shape. Nevertheless he was incredibly generous, both with his time and his disposition. We sat with him for a good hour and a half in the living room of his Boston home, during which we recorded an absolutely extraordinary interview, possibly his last. 

The Lottery of Birth
Photo By Joshua van Praag

When it came time to edit, Raoul did a great job of pulling the out the pieces that best helped tell the story of the film but there was certainly a lot left out, as there was with many other interviews we did. With Zinn we found that just including the quiet moments - a smile at the end of a phrase or an arching of one of the famous bushy brows - helped communicate the ideas he was describing in really beautiful ways. We have the extended interview of Zinn and several other greats on our DVD and they'll also be available digitally through very soon. 

You were also the director of photography on this film, and i think the shots throughout the film do an extraordinary job of supporting the overall message and story. How did you go about filming the b-roll? Did you know what you were looking for?

Raoul and I talked a lot about the look, feel and content of the b-roll - that is to say the non-interview, non-archival content. It was very important to us that the film feel like a piece of cinema in the sense that it could really build atmosphere by juxtaposing big, beautiful images with the stark, minimalist quality of the interviews.  I wanted to take the viewer into the kind of worlds that were being described in the film: schools, offices, streets, playgrounds. 

With a few tiny exceptions, we had no time or resources to stage any scenes so most of what you see is captured on the street. I began in New York City with an HD SLR and a small package of lenses and spent three weeks shooting solo. We had a bucket list of types of subjects and locations that we wanted to hit up. In addition to that I had transferred some of the audio from the interviews to an iPod and would travel about the city by night as I shot, listening to some of our speakers. It put me in the zone but also helped to focus me in on tiny details I would have otherwise overlooked. 

I was able to gain access to a series of high rises in midtown Manhattan from which I filmed scenes of office workers, with the aid of long lenses, in adjacent sky scrapers. We found that capturing these lone figures after dark in their cages of glass and steel was an incredibly effective way of visually communicating a sense of isolation, obedience and control: all themes that are central to the film's inquiry.

The Lottery of Birth
Photo by Joshua van Praag
In terms of composition and lighting, I was very much inspired by the Ashcan school. Painters and photographers such as Edward Hopper and Lewis Hine succeeded in conveying these same fundamental truths by portraying their subjects, often from a distance, in the context of their work day. In that way, the images they created spoke volumes about the oppressive nature of the systems their subjects laboured under, and were constantly suggesting the link between identity and environment. 

My favourite shot is when the boy in red approaches the fountain, thinks about jumping in, but decides against it.  (you can see a moment of it in the trailer, at 1min 38), that is such a powerful moment, and says so much. I think we can all relate to it. Turning that into a question -- when dealing with the selling off your film, did you run into difficulties that led to your own challenges with compromise and obedience? 

We've been incredibly lucky with the way things turned out on this front. A brand new US-based distributor by the name of saw the film, loved it and instantly offered to distribute it through their own digital platform which just launched with the release of 'The Lottery of Birth'.

To say they are filmmaker-friendly is an understatement. Not only have we been able to maintain creative control from the get-go, but we've also been able to participate in every level of the distribution process. This is obviously incredibly rare. Usually we would be forced to just hand over the film(s) to some faceless company that would assume total control for pennies on the dollar, demand all kinds of compromises, and that would be it. With Mangu, we've enjoyed an unprecedented level of input and have maintained a strong stake in the project. Being filmmakers themselves they understand our perspective and encourage our participation. They're also interested in challenging traditional models. 

On June 21st we launched both in theaters and digitally, worldwide in four languages. Just today people from Iran, the Netherlands, Mexico, India and the USA all streamed the film online from their respective countries. We want as many people as possible from as many places as possible to see this film without having to wait. understands this and is helping us make that a reality.

The film leaves viewers with such strong and poignant views. It's a little mind-blowing, in fact. What do you hope is the end result -- what should viewers take from watching this? 

Without a doubt, the most important message the film provides us with is the need to question everything. That we are not born free as many would have us believe but in fact freedom is something we must work hard to attain. Though we come into this world with certain built in constraints that both hinder and help us in our search for freedom, there are many things about ourselves and our environment that we can change. The dominant ideology in our society is constantly seeking to undermine the idea that any real alternative to the current system is possible.

Once we understand that we are products of the environment we are born into, it frees us to begin thinking more critically about the structures that shape our lives. That independence of thought is the first step toward effecting real change. As the film states, "the more we understand the effect the world has had on us, the more we can control the effect we have on the world". 

My review of 'The Lottery of Birth'

Visit the Official Website and Purchase the documentary through Mangu.TV by clicking HERE.

Buy The Lottery of Birth on iTunes by clicking HERE

Care to share?

Tuesday 25 June 2013

AARON SORKIN And THE NEWSROOM: Reflecting On Season One

I love this show. I've had no free time yet somehow managed to re-watch the entire season in the past three days. I got up today at 5.40am, I thought because of sleep issues but I think I just wanted to watch the final episode that badly. 

I'm passionate about films and TV, yet I dislike so much of it. Maybe dislike is the wrong word-- it's just that most of it doesn't resonate with me. Bit like how 'The Newsroom' got such a backlash; people saying Sorkin was repeating himself, or that it was liberal nonsense, or that he writes women badly. If you think that, fair enough, but why are you watching? 

If I watch a show and it sucks, I stop at most within a full episode although more often within a full three minutes. But 'The Newsroom' kills me, in all the right ways. Sure, the women are insane and fumble over their words, but so do the men! This is a show about lonely workaholics who don't know how to function outside of the newsroom. Sure, that's almost exactly how it was in 'The West Wing' and 'Studio 60', but that's a good thing. 

When you look at the career of Woody Allen, you can see a lot of wildly different movies -- but also you can see how they're almost all exactly the same. As human beings, we fixate on a very narrow spectrum of things, and we're normally stuck on them for most of our lives. Aaron Sorkin persistently writes about single-minded, sleepless overachievers, but that's what I love about him. 

'The West Wing' makes me care about politics. 'Studio 60' makes me want to be a better writer and 'The Newsroom' makes me want to speak truth to bullshit. And 'The Social Network' makes me want to focus on  my work and not stop until I'm at the top of my game. 

The criticism of the women in this show, I don't get it. People moan that Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is too girly, but then you have Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) who is so career minded that relationships and love barely register in her brain. She's fascinating! I can't remember the last time I saw a character that captured how inept women can be at dealing with their human relationships. But also, it's not exclusively a gender thing, because I relate to Sloan MYSELF.

And yes, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) occasionally drops her phone or emails the whole office by mistake, but why do people fixate on that as an example of how Sorkin writes women unfairly? How about the fact that she almost single-handedly changes the way a whole TV network shapes the news? How about the fact that she has brought together an incredible team, full of journalistic genius and incredible loyalty? The women are amazing on this show. 

What I love most is how incredibly personal it is. These are characters desperate to do some good in the world; to be that rare thing: a news broadcast that actually means something. That puts truth as the number one priority. 

When the show first came on air, I got caught up in the hype. A little bit of my own hype but mostly the hype of the media frenzy that surrounded the show. I found myself talking about the women on the show, Sorkin's pretentiousness and all those other things that the entire world seemed to focus on. I'd allowed my views to be influenced by the crap that surrounded me all over the internet. 

But hey, that's exactly what this show is trying to talk about. 

Now, a year later, I have a much clearer head. I am absolutely in love with the show. I don't need to give you a technical breakdown, I don't need to explain point by point why it's brilliant -- that stuff doesn't matter. What matters is that I was engrossed, I was inspired; I laughed and when 'Baba O'Riley' did its thing in the final episode, I was beyond riveted. 

Stepping away from the internet, away from the opinions and the criticism, I was able to see a beautifully crafted, inspiring TV show. That's rare. I can't wait for Season Two. 

Care to share?

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Why INSIGHT Is The Key Ingredient In Creative Work

Insight is everything. When you love a movie, you love it because you related to it. It helped you understand yourself a little more.

But you can't have genuine insight every moment of every day; not everything you create will have the magic bullet. That's why you have to live. My most insightful creative works have been inspired by the most exciting times in my life and also the darkest.

That's also why you need to read a lot, and see films as often as you can.  It's inspiring to not only get insight from others, but to see how they capture and present it. 

Often, I'll be at some tiny film festival, watching mostly BAD films, yet they often have the seeds of great insight. That's the difficult thing, it's not enough to have insight, you need the skill and experience to contain it and get it onto the page, into your performances, and on to the screen. 

The best acting performances are full of great insight. Ever been watching a film, totally invested, when you are certain the character should be angry, and then in the next scene he's calm and controlled? Suddenly you think "Ouch, yes! That's how it feels. I so GET that!" The perception of a moment, delivered by a writer or director or actor, is capable of astonishing you because it totally surprises you, by finding the key to a moment or feeling that you wouldn't have got to yourself. And once it gets there, you think, "that was so obvious, why didn't I think of it!?". When that happens, you were trumped my insightfulness. 

Two of my favourite acting performances: the parole board scene in Shawshank, and Forrest Gump finding out he has a kid.

Ouch! Wow. What scenes. Hanks and Freeman are SO subtle.

But its not just 'good acting', it's not just their training and its not just that they were 'in the moment'. It's that they gave us new information that we couldn't have had ourselves.

Red's resignation, Gump's fears, there's wisdom and subtlety in the performances that are incredibly INSIGHTFUL. It's the rarest thing, to find true insight, but its what we're really after.

I'm talking about the films we really connect to, not the big-explosion-fodder. Having said that, you usually find that the people chosen to write and direct the big franchises are often screenwriters and directors who initially surprised us with more subtle and engaging films. Michael Arndt wrote 'Toy Story 3' and he's currently writing the new 'Star Wars', but he began with 'Little Miss Sunshine', the freshest comedy film in years.  Jon Favreau directed two 'Iron Man' movies and was the writer of average comedies like 'Couples Retreat', but he began with 'Swingers', which spoke to an entire male generation. 

As certain as I am that insight is the gold ticket to great creative works, my own attempts rarely reach those heights. Why? Lack of insight! Too much Facebook and Twitter and listening to other people's opinions.

I've re-dedicated myself recently to living more, reading more, listening more. Because life is where the insight comes. As an artist, you're only ever going to be unique and interesting if you engage with the world, open yourself up to its complicated craziness and then set it down in your own inimitable way.

That's HARD, but its what works. You need to be unmercifully personal and open and honest in your work. People will respond!

I mean, they won't always respond, because sometimes being personal is self-indulgent and uninteresting. But I'll leave it to you, fellow artists, to know when you've really had an insight worthy enough of taking up the time of the general public.

Care to share?

Wednesday 12 June 2013

THE LEGACY PLAYERS - There Are Great Actors, But Not Always Great Films

'Grudge Match' is a film currently in post-production that stars Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone; as two ex-boxers who return to the ring for one last fight, 50 years after their last contest. Some people are excited at the thought of Rocky Vs Raging Bull, others groan as they wonder what De Niro is doing to his legacy. 

But what about his legacy? As fans, we want to see our heroes do great film after great film, but it's impossible. 

The top actors all have their moment. Take Tom Hanks, who barely put a foot wrong in the 90's. That's because, whenever a really great script turned up, it went straight to him because he was the best (and most bankable) around. But times move on, movies stars get older, and someone else becomes the go-to movie star. 

But Tom Hanks still wants to work, and so does De Niro and so does Al Pacino.

You can be the greatest actor in Hollywood, but you still need the material. And even if you have the material - you need a movie studio who will bankroll it. 

It's like when people slam Eddie Murphy for the shitty movies of recent years. Do you think he made a decision to stop doing great films, to focus on the bad ones? Of course not. The reality of being an actor is that you need to be offered the roles. And there's only a handful of actors who get offered the very best stuff. 

Al Pacino is, undoubtedly, one of the best there is. But things are different now, it's harder for him to find the great characters. And I'll watch him in virtually anything. There's nothing I like more than Pacino playing a cop -- but how many working cops look as old as he does? 

Did you see 'Stand Up Guys'? Awful. The premise was:

A bunch of old guys get back together to do a thing they used to do. 

That's exactly what 'Grudge Match' is. And 'The Expendables (1, 2 & 3)'. 

That's the best Hollywood has come up with, it's how they think to utilize some of the greatest screen actors of all time. 

There are some true comedic geniuses in our industry; and I'd put Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Steve Martin in that category. But how many films have they done in recent years that showcase that genius? 

They were all top stand up comics, and they have all been in films that are recognised as comedy classics. But why doesn't it last longer? 

Partly, perhaps, because we all run out of steam. There's only so much gas in the tank. We enjoy when Woody Allen makes good movies, but the truly great ones are over. We say 'Midnight In Paris' is a return to form but if you think it's as good as 'Annie Hall', you have issues. 

But more than running out of gas, it's that they don't get to ride in the best cars. 

I'm extremely excited about the upcoming show 'The Crazy Ones', because I see the Robin Williams that I LOVE! The comedic genius, full of nervous energy and crazy insanity. I have faith in it because it's created by David E. Kelley, one of the funniest writers in television (he created 'Ally Mcbeal' and 'Boston Legal'). It's exciting because Robin Williams with STRONG material is a powerful thing. 

When was the last time that Robin Williams made us laugh? He was great in 'One Hour Photo' and 'Insomnia', but they weren't comedy. I enjoyed him in 'Patch Adams' -- but I'm not even sure I'd call that comedy, and even if I did -- that was way back in 1998! 

It's not that Robin Williams stopped being funny, it's that the films weren't being made. There were no vehicles for his talent. You could say the same now about Jim Carrey. 

People don't mind when movies don't quite work out, like 'Righteous Kill' which starred Pacino and De Niro. You at least get the sense they tried. But when Michael Corleone turns up in 'Jack and Jill' and Travis Bickle rolls out for another 'Meet The Fockers', your heart breaks a little. 

But why is that? We don't own these actors. They're free to do what they want! I bet Robert De Niro has a blast goofing around with Ben Stiller. 

The legacies of these great actors are secure. As the years pass, we just have to be grateful that they are still with us, and still hungry to work. And sometimes, you've got to put up with 'Little Fockers' and 'New Year's Eve' to get to 'Silver Linings Playbook'. 

And on the rare occasions where something like 'The Crazy Ones' comes along; you've got to hope it will do for Robin Williams what 'The West Wing' did for Martin Sheen; it added a new layer to an already brilliant legacy. 

I sincerely hope that all of these actors still have some great projects to come. I don't see any reasons why they wouldn't. People have to just keep writing for them, and the studios need to be open to  supporting stories that feature older casts; that aren't just about older people getting together to do the things they used to do.

Care to share?

Monday 10 June 2013

The Government, Spying On Us?

"Think of what it would be like if Google knew what you'd searched for, what you'd looked at, and all the bizarre thoughts and curiosities that are inside that head of yours. Can you imagine if the government could use all your emails and Facebook messages as evidence against you? "

From my October 2012 article, "What if it was a conspiracy?".

The thing about being a paranoid conspiracist is that, at some point, eventually, you're usually proved right.

Care to share?

Tuesday 4 June 2013

80% Of Success Is Showing Up

You know what I can't stand? People who moan about a lack of opportunities, but wouldn't know an opportunity if it smacked them in the face. 

An opportunity is pretty much anything where you get to flex your creative muscles. Where you get to potentially collaborate with new people. 

It's not what you know, it's who you know. 

It's who you meet, and how reliable they think you are. And how you can deliver on your talent.

If you think you're failing, one of two things is happening. Either you're paying your dues and struggling like we all do, or you're just not putting in the effort. You're still waiting to get chosen, like when you were picked for the school play because you're pretty. 

Well, you're not in school anymore. And there are hundreds, if not thousands of actors, directors and writers who are working harder than you. And maybe it's dawning on you now that you're not as talented as you always thought you were. 

Talent is just talent. Nobody cares. It's about what you do with it, how you nurture it. If you don't turn up, don't try, don't make the effort, don't return the phone calls and emails, then you only have yourself to blame. 

The industry owes you nothing, it doesn't even care about you. And why should it? 

Care to share?