Monday 31 May 2010

Are you famous yet?

I am compiling a complete list of oppressive/ignorant/hurtful/difficult questions that people ask, and once we have all the questions, we can decide on the right answers. I'll get started; let me know more questions in the comments section..

Are you famous yet?
Why are you still working here?
What if you don't make it?
Are you talented enough?
Have I seen you in anything?
Are you rich yet?
Any progress with your films yet?
Are you still trying to make films?
Did you hear about that guy who made a film for $1 and got into Cannes? Have you thought of doing that?
Do you want to hear my idea about a a Sci-Fi film about the devil and death and life and vampires and good versus evil where the devil plays chess and did you know my idea is totally amazing and original?
Why don't you get a real job?
Have you ever thought about making a film that people actually want to watch?

These type of questions are often asked in an innocent way, and are not consciously meant to upset or belittle; but quite often, they do. I have talked to many actors, even quite successful ones who get stumped by the question, "Have I seen you in anything?". The subtext of the question is actually "Well what have you acted in then? Have you made it? Are you earning money?". It's not as friendly as it first appears.

A couple of years ago; I was a producer on a feature film. We had no money, no time; we had nothing at all really. But we did it. A giant achievement. And I remember going for a meal with my friends the day after shooting-- absolutely drained and tired from the hectic two week, 14 hour a day shoot -- and, my friends had decided to have a 'what are you doing with your life?' day. And they hit me with the questions--- and I was absolutely flattened, despite the fact I had just achieved something monumental.

Part of getting experience and succeeding in the industry, and with yourself; is not being oppressed or angered by the questions, the insults, the accusations; etc. I am quite good at this now, but some still irk me from time to time. Anyways, I'd like to build a full list of these types of questions, and then we can look to find the right answers.

This should be fun!

Care to share?

Saturday 29 May 2010

Loving What You Love And That Being Enough.

I've been really getting into Spike Lee films recently. I never used to be such a big fan, I don't think I was ready. I needed to find my way there. In recent times, I've felt a real yearning for something more from my cinema. Something more meaningful and powerful and influential -- I found it -- I found it by discovering (properly) the work of Spike Lee.

I'm loving his films. Fully engaged in all of them--- enjoying them more than any other films in a LONG TIME. And the best part about it? I really have nothing to say about them. They raise interesting questions when I watch them, and I find them often powerful, always entertaining--- but in terms of blogging here, I have NOTHING.

And it's got me thinking about that very thing-- about how we're always expected to justify and explain the things we love. When you meet someone and say "Actually, I loved Jumanji!," you're expected to explain it, to justify it. We don't ever get to just love films, we have to talk about the reasons. This is a normal thing in life but also, of course-- a self-imposed thing when you become a blogger. You don't let yourself watch or read too much without the inner voice saying "hmm, there must be a blog in this..."

Thinking right back to the beginnings of my love for cinema, and even TV; I used to just love stuff without talking about it. I would stay up and watch episodes of 'Steptoe & Son' on BBC2, I'd laugh hysterically, then it'd be time for bed. Just like when I would order as many Tom Hanks films on VHS as I could find; watch them, love them, then carry on with normal life (making my friends laugh and being ignored by girls and having friends laugh because I was being ignored by girls). They were magic times. Back then, enjoying films was easier. I just enjoyed them. It was my thing. As you become more open with your passions and begin to speak up for them, they kind of become everyone's. Or at least that's how it feels.

I don't entirely know what I'm talking about--- but that's kind of what I'm talking about, that it's okay, who says you need to know what you're talking about anyway? Who cares why you love something or why someone doesn't?

I think we often feel like we need to know why we like something, or why we think it's good. I have, in the past, felt a bit silly for not knowing why I like the films I like, or why a particular director is one of my favorites. It often feels like other people can say "Yes, his style is revolutionary and the tone of his films are influenced by Renoir with a hint of Godard; and his early work is reminiscent of 17th Century elephants which are themselves, of course, symbolic of the thriller genre." But for me, meh-- despite being a writer, director and persistent blogger; I haven't got a clue most of the time. In fact, I hardly even remember the films I love the most. I'll tell someone I love, say, Jerry Maguire, and they'll ramble on about a scene I have no recollection of.

I take in films differently. My style/way/dysfunction is that -- I get engrossed, and then I drop a lot of the info. I forget who did what, and where, and how-- if we both see a new movie and then tomorrow night talk about it, when you mention the scene about the scarecrow or whatever, I'll have no clue what you're talking about.

What I am comfortable with now is: knowing that this is completely fine. It's great that some people leave a movie knowing all the plot points or having thoughts about the intricacy of the Mise-En-Scene. For me, all I am left with is either a feeling of having enjoyed the film, or having disliked it--- and possibly having some other emotion attached to it. That's who I am - that's how I take in movies.

What I'm getting at, I think, although I'm not really sure--- is that, there's no rule that you have to be able to justify why something is good, nor does it matter if you don't remember the scene with the snake, and also -- we all value different things. It is often perceived, and/or can feel like you are less than if you can't quantify or explain something. I say: it isn't important, at all.

I remember when I was younger, I was working in a job-- not industry related.. and my boss told someone I'm a filmmaker. The woman he told came up to me and started talking about my filmic aspirations. It was all very pleasant until she said, pointedly, "Why do you want to make films?" and told me that if I couldn't answer, I'd never be a film director. I tried about sixteen times to answer-- each time she wasn't convinced, and neither was I. I couldn't explain it. I went home feeling like a complete failure, no wonder I was working in such a shit job. Of course, the realization came much later that I absolutely love films; watching and making them; and the fact I couldn't put it into words didn't matter. I put my screenplays into words, that's all that matters. Oppressive people trying to make me feel useless really aren't part of my journey. My lack of an explanation may have made that grumpy, wrinkly lady feel good for about seven minutes; but I have gone on to make films, she's gone on to terrorize more young people with big dreams. I'd rather be me.

Let's take some time to get back to loving what we love! And being happy in the knowledge that even if we find it hard to explain sometimes, that's fine, who says it needs to be explained, or make sense. This isn't an application for a grant, this isn't a police statement, it's the things we love -- it's art, it's life, it's the movies. It's you and me. It needs no explanation.

Care to share?

RIP Dennis Hopper 1936 - 2010

Dennis Hopper passed away today, losing his long battle with cancer.

Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, True Romance, Hoosiers, Speed - to name but a few. The sad fact that we'd all like to avoid is that even actors die. If we're lucky, we're left with a wonderful legacy of performances. For eternity, the world gets to see a part of someone live on forever. With Dennis Hopper, that will definitely be true. I can think of nothing better when someone passes away. RIP.

Care to share?

Is Film School Worth It? Is It Necessary?

If anyone says that you must go to film school, they're wrong. If anyone says you must definitely not go, they are also wrong. There is no right answer. The one thing that matters is that you continually learn and study, and that means different things to different people. Some people learn best by listening to lecturers talk about symbolism, some people learn best by watching Spike Lee films in their bedrooms. Some people learn technical stuff by enrolling in a course, some people learn by volunteering on a film set and saying 'hey, can you show me how you do that technical stuff?'
A few years back I was a camera assistant on a horror film being shot in Ealing Studios. The crew were ALL film school friends. Apart from me. But the fact is: I was still there. Also, ever since I began making short films I've had film school graduates applying to be helpers on my short films, because they struggle to find good work experience. They were qualified filmmakers, my only qualification was when I passed a cycling proficiency test, aged 9. My point is: go to film school or don't go to film school, both are wrong, both are right.

I think that three of the most important things are confidence, knowledge and experience. My knowledge comes from in depth studying of cinema, from pretty much every single day of my life since I was 13, and from producing my own films ever since I was 16. It doesn't come from the classroom. Other people get great knowledge from fascinating film school lectures. Neither are correct, they're just different. Most film school grads I know have great knowledge and know wonderfully complex things I'm clueless about. But that's the good thing about doing it my own way, I set my own studying agenda. I know a Morgan Freeman glance or a Woody Allen line or a Billy Wilder moment better than anyone I know. They don't teach you that. They can't teach you the little tiny moments that excite you about movies. They're your own.

Experience is important. I spent years struggling to understand actors, dealing with ruined locations, fumbling over bad dialogue and being stopped by police for having no permission--- all this came from making short films in my teens without having a clue what to do. Now I'm at the point where I'm fearless come the shoot. I can do it. No problem. That's experience. That's my journey.

However, film school offers wider experiences; the chance to try different equipment, collaborate and build relationships with like-minded people-- and a chance to focus on technical proficiency of the craft. When people come out of film school, they know the names of cameras and they know the shortcut buttons on Final Cut Pro. That's experience.

Confidence is, for me, the main one. When you have the choice of film school, or the industry, or dedicating your life to packing groceries: it really comes down to confidence. If you think film school will make you a confident filmmaker, then that's probably the right place for you. If you think you need to get out there and find your way, then maybe you should. If you think you're ready to produce and direct right now, if you have that confidence, go for it.

There are many people who act confident or display confidence. That's not what I'm talking about... There are directors who act like big shots but get scared on film sets and there are actors who stroll around breezily but deep down are crippled by fears of inferiority... by confident; I mean Spielberg marching into Universal Studios and demanding work, I mean Will Smith constantly determined and certain of his greatness, I mean Chaplin taking to the stage aged 5 and mesmerizing the audience. Those people don't need a syllabus, modules and tutoring, they need to express themselves immediately. If you have unyielding confidence and belief; then you're ready. For me, film school is what many people do to find those things. The alternative route is to learn through trying, and by helping out, and by listening: there is great wisdom to be found by helping on film sets.

Do what feels right. Follow your mind and body in the direction they are pulling you. NO-ONE can tell you whether film school is right or not; both paths can lead you to jubilation or depression, just like anything else.

The one thing I will say, whilst admitting I'm partial to going the industry route--- many, many graduates have said to me, "I wish I'd done what you did," and nobody has ever said "I'm struggling to get work, I wish I'd been to film school." Often, people go to study film simply because they're clueless about how to move forward with their careers. Maybe that isn't a good reason.

Film school is great for making contacts, friends and collaborators-- I missed out on that. I've always been a little jealous of some of my film school peers who seem to take turns to work on each others passion projects, and they all chip in and work together. There's something wonderful about that. Film school gave them that. It's been more gradual for me to find those types of relationships through going it the industry route.

In terms of succeeding in the industry, it really doesn't make a difference. No-one cares. But, paradoxically, in some way-- everyone cares. On both sides of the argument, people often cut each other down. I have often been asked, in an oppressive kind of way, "Er, did you go to film school?" -- it can be an instant way to try and deflate you. Likewise, I've often seen do-it-yourself types feeling superior because they went out and did it and aren't 'Rich film school kids.' This stuff is nonsense; and I hope we can begin to move past it. The only reason to go to film school should be: because you really want to go to film school. Because you find value in it. Whether it will affect or even help your career in film, who knows. It certainly can.

Care to share?

Friday 28 May 2010

Women In The World, Women In Film - GUEST WRITER Zoje Stage.

Women, Men & The Film Industry and The Missing Voice Of Women In Film are two articles that I recently wrote, where I am slowly and gradually opening my eyes to the issue of gender; specifically, gender inequality in the film industry. I must admit that until about two weeks ago, I was unknowingly extremely ignorant of this problem. Whilst I have always been quite sensitive to issues around the subject, i.e., writing things like this; they have generally been mild thoughts that cross my mind and then disappear again. Luckily, that's no longer the case.

ZOJE STAGE is a 2008 Fellow in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is writer/director/producer of the upcoming feature film "The Machine Who Loved." Her knowledge of, and passion for, the issue of gender equality in film is amazing. It became very clear to me that rather than have me stumbling forth with little revelations as I learn more; it's a good idea to have Zoje guest write an article-- because what she has to say is informative, fascinating, and important -- and a million miles more eloquent than I could possibly manage.

Women In The World, Women In Film
By Zoje Stage

The subject of women's opportunities in the film industry is of great interest to me, and it is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I have a personal mission to help make people aware of gender inequality in general - as an extension of how it relates to the film industry.

There is a huge underlying problem as to why women do not have equal opportunities:

The history of humanity is based on gender inequality and the intentional suppression of women. As time has gone on, things have changed in many parts of the world - creating the illusion that, for the most part, men and women live in an equal-opportunity world. But in reality, this just isn’t the case.

The structures that define human civilization were designed by men, to better, praise, or entertain other men. Do we have any clue how a government would be run if the world had evolved with true gender equality? Do we know what a building might look like? Do we even know how a story might be told?

Everything about how we - men and women - live is dependent upon us all accepting that the male-created models are what we can and should strive for. In addition, there has been a systemic injustice done to women across the centuries in that, even when women were able to accomplish significant things in fields not truly open to them, the historians of the day dismissed their efforts - and subsequently, much of the history of women and their contributions have been erased or forgotten.

Literally, the contributions of women have been ERASED from the collective consciousness of human history!

I encourage you to visit the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York. Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party is permanently installed there. Go look at the hundreds of names of important women from throughout the ages and ponder why you have never heard of most of them.

Our collective vision of the world has been seen - and recorded - through men's eyes.

Are you familiar with Alice Guy Blaché?

She was the second person in the history of cinema to make a narrative film. She was a contemporary of the Lumiere brothers. In the early 1900's Alice Guy Blaché - though French born - was one of the highest paid women in America --- as a director and producer!!! As one of the world's first filmmakers she accomplished truly groundbreaking things. Why has everyone heard of D.W. Griffith but not her?

When contemporary filmmakers engage in discussions about why women filmmakers - writers, directors, producers - are not better represented in the film industry, someone (usually male) attempts to explain it away by stating that women simply aren't interested in making the kinds of high concept, blockbuster films that their male counterparts like to make. There is an assumption that women prefer softer stories, girly stories, comedies. In short, there is an assumption that women would prefer to make crap.

In reality, if women filmmakers existed in the EXACT same numbers as male filmmakers you would see proportionally more blockbusters - and proportionally more of everything else. From good films to bad films. You would see women making horror films, thrillers, adventure films, etc. And another thing would happen if women filmmakers existed entirely proportional to male filmmakers:

You would see a broader interpretation of human experience.

People would become familiar with "other" types of stories - the stories of the silenced half of human history. I believe, over time, these stories would be embraced. These stories would become just as ubiquitous as male buddy films and little boy coming-of-age films. Just as toddlers are trained what to eat by their parents, an audience is trained what to like based on what is fed to them. Give them a broader diet and they will embrace a more well-balanced offering!

When murmurings began about the lack of a single woman director in the running for this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, as usual people failed to really understand the significance. People snarkily suggested that some of us would prefer to see good films by men go unaccepted, or lesser films by women be included. That was not the issue at all. One does not achieve equality by suppressing others, or accepting a lower standard. But when such things happen it gives us all a chance to examine the world we live in.

Here is an example of how people in a decision making position will pick material that is familiar to them - a reverse gender scenario:

In 2009 I won the first Screenplay Live! Screenwriting Competition, and then got to direct my winning script as a staged reading at the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival. My script was about a past-middle aged woman and, obviously, it was written by a woman. The presiding judge was a past-middle aged woman. A few weeks ago I attended the reading of the 2010 winning script from the same contest. It was written by a woman, and was about two adult sisters and their aging mother. The presiding judge was the same past-middle aged woman as last year.

The lesson here? Of course we all, if given the choice, will pick material that is familiar to us, that resonates with us.

The tragedy is that women have been so silenced throughout history that there is little recognition or appreciation of our voices. And not enough women in power to truly influence the selection, development, and programming process.

There had been an argument on an online board last year concerning the Pixar film "Up" - and how some people lamented that Pixar had yet to make a true adventure film with a girl in the leading role. Pixar has had girls in supporting roles, and we've all seen gender-stereotyped lead girls in tons of animated films. But this was an argument about the specific lack of ADVENTURE stories where girls are the leaders. One particular comment really struck me:

A man wrote that his young son - who has been around girls and women his whole life - would be fully able to relate to a story about a girl. He wondered why it seemed more likely to the powers-that-be that his young son could better relate to a character portrayed as a truck, or a fish.

Eventually, consensus on the Pixar debate seemed to conclude that the directors, animators, and writers at Pixar are predominantly men, and that they aren't trying to be sexist, they are merely creating stories that they personally can relate to.

On an individual basis I do not believe that I am often discriminated against. I know a lot of men who dig my work and respect what I do. But there is still a collective, insidious perception that if I am a woman then my work is only going to be understood by other women. Never mind that I have been utterly transformed by the work of men! We can, if given the opportunity, relate to each other, learn from each other, embrace each other - we live in this world together. Men have made extraordinary contributions to the world, there is no question about that - and we women have embraced your vision. But, again, the perception exists that the female perspective is somehow not interesting to men. A producer even suggested trying to market my sci-fi/drama feature as a "chick flick" to tap into that ready market! (I explained in no uncertain terms that "chick flick" is synonymous with "crap only women like" and that I never wanted to hear the words uttered again.)

One obvious thing that needs to happen is we need to have more women in decision-making positions - as selection panelists at film festivals, as development executives, as directors. Very, very slowly this is starting to happen - but too slowly. When Kathryn Bigelow picked up the Academy's Best Director Oscar I wept - but only partly because I was happy. I was also really pissed that it took the Academy 80+ years to see exceptional directing talent in someone without a penis. Since the beginning of film, women have been an integral part of this industry. But we happen to live in a world that refuses to document our existence, or value our work as much as that of men.

There was an op-ed piece in The New York Times this year during awards season that suggested, with dark humor, to end the practice of recognizing Best Actor and Best Actress. After all, talent is NOT gender specific. I got into an argument about this with a male actor (and friend) who was adamantly opposed to the idea, on the grounds that there would be half as many acting awards given out! It seems ludicrous to counter that argument by suggesting they add MORE categories - like Best Woman Editor, Best Woman Composer, Best Woman Screenwriter, etc. That would be offensive! And where would it lead? Best Asian Director? Best Black Costume Designer?

But the point is... Talent is not gender specific. Or ethnicity specific. Or anything else. Talent is talent. And we still live in a world that can't quite fully embrace that. Women ARE already equal in terms of what we are capable of doing. But there is an underlying perception that has not caught up to that.

The men of the world still tend to make higher salaries than women. So men have more money to spend on movies. So more movies are made to attract the male audience. One might conclude that this cycle will not change until there is gender equality EVERYWHERE -- where women earn an equal salary, and are represented and respected in all of the fields where they wish to have influence.

So the solution to gender inequality in the film business is, not so simply, to reach a global state of gender equality. It is a world worth striving for.

Care to share?