Sunday 28 April 2013

UPSTREAM COLOR And My Unexpected Revelation

It's one of those films. A woman gets duped into giving her money away. Then there are shots of pigs walking around. Then a woman meets a guy but the camera is out of focus. Then the guy and woman talk but not in sync with the images. We see water flowing down a river. A guy stands over the pigs while frowning. 

I don't mean any offence to the director of this or the many films like it, but my word for these types of films is: boring.

But then, that's the word I would use for most Hollywood films these days.

That realisation hit me during 'Upstream Color', right around the time a pig was trundling in and out of focus. This artsy, nonsensical gibberish was no less boring than most movies that come out of the Hollywood system.

I found myself relaxing into the experience. For once feeling the joy of not watching a predictably linear, in-focus movie. Suddenly, there were no rules. And freed from the idea that a film should make sense or offer any kind of story, I began to enjoy the experience for what it was. 

And what is that? It's a nicely shot film, seemingly on a low budget, which captures some beautiful moments of pigs walking around and humans struggling with strange circumstances that, admittedly, I didn't understand.

And I don't mean to give big spoilers, but at the end of the film, the lead character holds a pig, they share a moment, it's poignant.

I'm so tired of what passes for movies these days. Bloated biopics in moody tones, caffeinated indie films set in LA and superheroes saving the world in a predictable way but only after two hours and forty minutes of witty banter.

This film had me intrigued, purely because it was different. Don't read too much into that, I was still mostly bored. Yet rather than flick my phone on to see if time was moving at all, I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the screen. I persisted.

It was good to see a movie doing something in its own way, at its own pace. Most movies in cinemas at the moment are cut together so fast and furious, with the plot jumping around like crazy, desperate to seem edgy, desperate to keep us consuming salty and sugary heart disease boosters. But I'm growing tired of it -- and so are many people. And although I don't think 'Upstream Color' was particularly good, I am not dismissive of it, like I perhaps would have been a year or two ago. I'm glad it exists, I'm glad it's different.

With TV getting so good, and streaming services producing their own content, the cinema is in desperate need of renewal. It will survive, it always does, but right now it struggles for relevancy. The Hollywood films all obvious and brain dead, the indie films obscure and slow. 

Of course I'm generalising, of course you could name ten films you liked from the last year. But still, the game is changing, and people only want to give up two hours for a flick if it's going to be exceptional.

To be honest with you, I am going through a stage of resisting the cinema. It's so rare that you see something great. 'Upstream Color' is not exceptional, but then why does it need to be? Cinema hasn't set the bar high for years. 

Here's some perspective from a guy called Matthew Milam, whose quote was published on The Lefsetz Letter:

"In the 80s, you had 15 - 20 movie studios each putting out 20 pictures a year. When you need to produce 400 films, you've sometimes just got to give a kid 10 million bucks and tell him to come back with something great. At the same time, you had 3 (4 if you count Fox) TV networks who had to play it safe. They were the only game in town and they were putting out content that had to attract advertisers.

Cut to 2013 and the roles have been flipped. You've got 10 studios each putting out a diminishing number of pictures every year. They've got to play it safe because they're taking fewer bites at the apple. Innovation has ceased in the pursuit of the sure dollar - an oxymoron if there ever was one.
Then, in TV, you've got God knows how many channels all clamoring for content. A day doesn't pass where you don't hear about some network jumping into the scripted TV game." 

We assume, because we're fans, that cinema is meant to be great. We assume that the innovators and artists will arise, eventually, and we assume they'll make stuff we'll relate to.

But the film studios make their money by packing stars and predictability. That doesn't always work, but it's the best the studios have come up with. And in the current era, it's no longer about the director. Only Nolan and Tarantino can pack a cinema, and that's because the power is no longer with the creatives.

Not that it ever was, really, but they used to always break through - now it's harder than ever. When scripts get sold in pitch meetings, when executives come up with the ideas, when sequels are constantly green-lit purely because of box office, what happens to art? What happens to original ideas?

Nobody knows. It's a mystery. I think it has something to do with pigs walking in and out of focus. 

Care to share?

Monday 22 April 2013

The Fading Importance Of Movies

Movies have an ever declining importance in society. This is obscured by the fact they are marketed more heavily at us than at any time previous.

But films no longer shape and inform our culture. You look back at the impact of, for example, the films of 1994, 'Shawshank Redemption', 'Forrest Gump' and 'Pulp Fiction', they infiltrated our hearts and minds on a mass scale in a way that hardly seems possible now.

It's partly to do with technology and attention spans. People are more interested in how Zuckerberg tweaks the timeline than how Fincher directs a film, and people are more inclined to sit through a series of YouTube virals that they not only watch, but feel they're participating in. YouTube videos are really about community, a shared experience, the way cinema used to be. 

I was having a Skype conversation yesterday with a friend, about how computer games are now so much more exciting than films. And we feel jealous -- because neither of us are gamers. The release of a new 'Call of Duty' is a cultural event, but a new movie is just a media event, lots of noise but then pretty soon we forget that 'Lincoln' was even made.

The biggest problem is the films themselves. The studio flicks do their best to live up to the stereotype; brainless nonsense chopped up and churned out to the masses. That's why marketing is so expensive. The only way to get us into the cinema is to batter our brains senseless with images and hype, convincing us that "hey, maybe 'Contraband' will be an awesome movie!"

But to see a studio movie, with big stars, mostly leads to disappointment. There was an article today in the New York Times, about how China is completely turning away from American films. The reason is obvious. Here's a quote from the article:

“They don’t want the same old thing, over and over again, the action blockbusters with lots of explosions.”
-Rob Cain.

And then there's independent cinema. Even at the level of no to near-no money, it's hard to find the gems, the market filled with films about twentysomething white hipsters having mild revelations while drinking coffee.

The most creative writers and directors of our time are probably using their skills to create commercials for drinks and foods and cars, because that's where the money is in this industry. It's hard to get work in movies. You start out resisting, because you have artistic integrity, but pretty soon you realise, you have to make a living. 

And even when you find a great movie, the chances of getting that film to the masses is minuscule. The greatest movies I've seen in recent years tend to be independent and foreign films that just don't have the ingredients which equate to distribution and attention. 

Online distribution can potentially change this. But like everything that is great, big business normally finds a way to take it over. Netflix are on our side at the moment, with treats like 'House of Cards' and the return of 'Arrested Development'. But is this really a sway towards good content, or is it only temporary?

I feel the ground is ripe for a new age of revolutionary filmmakers. The modern equivalent of the Spielberg/Lucas/Coppola era, the children of Tarantino/Rodriguez/Fincher. But these filmmakers are in a different playing field. They can't ignore the internet, they can't avoid the fractured nature of modern viewing styles. And the next generation of important filmmakers are going to include women. There are so many unexplored stories that cross the boundaries of gender, sexuality and beliefs.

We live in a unique time. Technological advances so crazy that if we told alien visitors, they wouldn't believe us. And still we're torn apart by religion, greed, fundamentalism and those damn trendy hipsters.

All of this conflict, unrest, confusion, and hope; it means the world is still, as ever, full of stories. It's too easy to get distracted by the toys, to be swayed by market forces.

Our job is to be artists. To write what we can and do it in unique and fascinating ways. It's the only hope we have if we want the cinema to be relevant in this era. 

Care to share?

Saturday 30 March 2013

Interview with Director BILL D'ELIA

Bill D'Elia is currently Executive Producer/Director on the TNT show 'Monday Mornings', and the upcoming pilot 'The Crazy Ones', which will see a much anticipated return to series television for Robin Williams. Bill's previous credits as an EP and director include 'Ally McBeal', 'Boston Legal' and 'Harry's Law'.

This is an exciting interview for me. As I explained to Bill - it was while watching 'Ally McBeal' that I really began paying attention to who was directing the episodes -- and it turned out that many of my favourites were directed by him. The same goes for 'Boston Legal' - he was responsible for the unique style of the show, and for many of the greatest episodes. 

When you're in LA, what do you miss most about New York? 

Spontaneity. There is none in L.A. There is plenty in N.Y. You just don't bump into anyone in L.A. unless you both happen to be working on the same stages or the same lot. Whenever I am in N.Y. I invariably run into someone I know and wind up having a dinner, lunch, or drinks. That just never happens in L.A. You have to work on seeing people. Last time I was in N.Y. I ran into two friends from L.A. We live minutes from each other and never see each other in L.A. Had dinner with each and haven't seen them since we're back in L.A.

I was a huge fan of 'Ally McBeal'. And it was the first time I really started noticing directors names on the credits -- I would always be happy when your name came up, because yours tended to be some of the episodes I loved the most. But I realise it's strange to say that, because every director is working within the confines of the established style of the show --- and a director isn't there to put their individual stamp on it with each episode. So I guess what I am asking is, what do you feel a director brings to each episode -- and how does it differ from director to director?

It's actually one of the biggest things. There is a difference. It is hard to define, but the shows that I have done, mostly with David Kelley, have a distinct tone. A blend of comedy and drama that not all directors get. What you look for as an producer hiring those directors is an understanding of the tone and the style, then a hope that they bring something to the show that surprises you. A really good director always, always has a point of view on the material. If you've hired the right person, that point of view enhances the tone of the show. My initial success as a television director was an understanding of the uniqueness of the particular show I was directing, but not allowing it to overwhelm my own sensibilities, my own likes and dislikes. I was (and am) always willing to take chances. You always look for a director that can stay within the established tone and style of the show, and yet somehow surprise you and take chances, think of things you may not have. It's a tricky balance. The reason you may notice one director's episode over another may very well be that the script was better for that episode. But it may also be that particular director brought a unique and particular take to the show. 

Do you ever have big disagreements with the directors you've hired? Even though you hire people who understand the tone and 'get it', these shows are your babies, and I imagine it can be a difficult and complex thing.

There have been times, but only a few, where I've had real disagreements with a director, but I will never interfere with his choices on set. I feel that once he or she is directing I don't want to do anything to undermine that authority. What I will do is take that director aside and quietly give a note, usually trying to do it at the end of the day, or discreetly if it's during a take. When you mention the style of Boston Legal, which was so specific, there were times when the shows I directed were full of that style and other shows were less so. It always depended on the particular story I was telling that week, the particular script. I let the directors know that the style was a tool to use at their discretion. I didn't want it to ever be forced. But what happens is, either they understand how to use that tool or they don't. If they don't, they don't get invited back.

The thing that sticks out for me in David Kelley's shows are the wonderful relationships between characters. I'm thinking mostly about Cage and Fish; Crane and Shore -- they're some of my favourites in television history. It goes without saying that David's writing is hugely responsible for this - but what other elements made them come together?

Having been more intimately involved with Crane and Shore on Boston Legal, I can say that what happened there was that we just caught lightening in a bottle. Something happened there that happens with the greatest comedy teams, a chemistry born of the uniqueness that each of them brought to the show. The actors could not be more different in their approaches to the material, and in real life would not have been friends, although they liked each other. But the pairing of the two dissimilar types, and the mutual respect they had for each other gave us something we never planned. The show was not originally going to be about the two of them. But when we saw what we had, we leaned on it. David has a unique ability to write to an actor's strength and mine it for gold, both comedically and dramatically. He sure did so with Boston Legal.

I've tried tracking down a copy of your first film, 'The Feud', but to no avail. How do you feel about it now, looking back? What did you get right? What went completely wrong?

That movie is only available on VHS and it is hard to find now. But I can say that, for me, I got it right. there are probably a million and one things that I might do differently were I to make that movie today, but I am extremely proud of it still. I was able to set a tone with that picture that is a through line in all my work and a reason I think I clicked with David Kelley's writing. Thomas Berger, the author of the novel on which it is based, like David, has a similar comedic take on life that definitely is in line with my own.

I'd love to know more specifically what your role tends to encompass as an Executive Producer. For example, with 'Monday Mornings', what specifically were you/are you doing?

Well it encompasses everything from beginning to end on every episode. Whether I am directing or not, my fingerprints are all over every episode. I try to give every director the knowledge that I have about the mechanics of how the show works...creatively and practically. From how the actors approach their work, to how the crew works. Essentially I act as the Artistic Director of the company. In essence I am the show runner and I am involved in every aspect except the writing of the scripts. That's David's domain. I will give notes on the script, work with the director of that episode, and then after I get that director's cut I will finish every episode with the editor, all the way through the music selection and final sound mix and color correction. At a certain point in the making of any series I am working on as many as six or seven episodes in various stages of production from pre planning to final delivery.

I was disappointed, as many were, when 'Harry's Law' came to an abrupt end. In future years - do you think shows like that will find new ways of surviving? It makes me think of 'Arrested Development' on Netflix and the way new shows like 'House of Cards' are produced.

We are in the midst of a sea change in how television is distributed. I liken it to when television showed up and radio and movie theaters were affected. We will adapt, but no one is sure exactly how. And it is changing rapidly. It's a fun time to be making television.

When you come in and direct a single episode of a show, like 'Glee' or 'The West Wing', how does it differ from a show you've been more involved with; I imagine it can be quite a challenge?

Mostly it is easier to come in as a visiting director now since I am so aware of the problems the producers may have running their show. I can focus on directing without worrying about producing so I feel like my load is lightened.

Your collaborations with David span back more than 20 years. Why is it that you work so well together?

I'm never quite sure how to answer that question, but part of the answer is embedded in some of my previous answers. First of all, I get his writing, which is some of the smartest in the history of television. I have a great respect for the written word and David is a great writer. I am first and foremost a director and I look at things that way. David is first and foremost a writer. We compliment each other's strengths. In addition we have great respect for each other. We have developed a real short hand over the years that makes things run smoothly between us in the fast paced world of television production. And as David has said "We may reject each others ideas, but we never reject each other." He lets me run the show and it frees him up to write without worry. Then together we finish each episode, each looking at it with a different set of sensibilities, yet somehow in sync with each other, collaborating on the finished product.

Going back to 'Boston Legal', which I rewatched in it's entirety very recently. It was really fascinating to me how you were quite ruthless with characters. As seasons end; people would be chopped out. And even new characters, after a few episodes, if you didn't feel their stories were developing, they'd swiftly disappear. Was there a change in attitude towards this compared with previous shows? I felt that in 'Ally Mcbeal', you'd keep people around a little longer, even after they'd run out of juice, story-wise.

Boston Legal was unique in that we really were making it up as we went along. It was the first show I did with David where I was in from the beginning and I think perhaps for that reason more of my sensibility comes through on that series. I joined Chicago Hope in season two as an Executive Producer (and ran it with John Tinker, David left it to us to make the show) and Ally McBeal in season three. I directed the pilot to Boston Legal and hadn't on the previous shows. Because it was a spin off of The Practice, BL in the beginning was all about finding the tone: how funny? how serious? It took us a while I think, and we were lucky we had James and Bill at the center to hold the show together as we found it.

As far as the changing cast, that's part of it. As the show evolved into mainly the stories between Shore and Crane, the other members of the ensemble changed a bit from season to season.

Boston Legal had such a unique visual style; which still feels fresh today. How did that particular look and shooting style come about?

I am so happy to hear your comments on that. I had a real take on how I wanted the show to look and feel. It was born out of character and tone. It felt to me like the characters in the show were off center and shot from the hip as lawyers and I wanted the look to reflect that. I thought "What if we shot it like a documentary, but glossy and pretty? What if the camera was restless and moving, capturing it in a different style?" I have to say it was a battle at first as I had it all in my head. The network was resistant and David, God bless him, just let me loose to do it. I refused to change the look, even when the network pushed me to do so, at one point even telling them that if they wanted the show to look different then they would have to get someone else to do it because I wouldn't. Funny looking back on it now. In addition, I did the same with the music. I told Danny Lux, our composer, that although the show was set in Boston, let's make it sound like it was in New Orleans, which led him to our jazz like theme and score.

The music was great. I remember when I first watched the show; I was a bit cynical I guess, unsure about the music and visuals. But of course, I grew to love them completely. And when I re-watched recently I remember thinking around season three or four that "oh, they've toned down the music a bit and the camera is less crazy," but then I'd refer back to the earlier episodes and no, you hadn't, you'd stuck to the style. And it still feels really bold, and as I was saying, fresh! Has working with the networks got easier over the years, or is it always a battle? Do you have to pick and choose your battles?

Although it varies depending on the network because they all have different philosophies, for the most part working with the broadcast networks has not gotten any easier. When you are in sync it's great. When you are not, it's awful. And there is nothing worse than bad ratings. That's when everyone has ideas on how to fix it. And I am not saying the network notes are always wrong, they can be really helpful. It's just that sometimes the show you want to make is slightly different than the one they want to make. That's just a kind of hell for everyone. However, making a cable show for TNT was a different experience. We made ten episodes, finished them, then they aired. They were extremely supportive and loved what we were doing. It's the first time I directed a pilot that my cut went to air without changes. It's probably also important to note that there is a real difference in the business model. A network makes many many shows that need to last 22 episodes a season, season after season. And because of that, they expect many to fail. The cable networks make fewer shows and fewer episodes of those shows, many times expecting them to last for only a few seasons. The sheer volume of broadcast production is staggering. They have a lot to deal with and a lot of people to answer to. I'm sure that has something to do with the difference in the cultures between cable and network.

Was the Jerry Espenson opening credit sequence your idea? I loved that.
It's actually my ringtone! 

 I remember it very well. That was David's idea. Those silly ideas, breaking the fourth wall for example, were almost always from him. There were so many of them and I loved them.

And now you're working on a new comedy pilot, with Robin Williams. That's interesting to me because I've been talking a lot recently with friends, about how the great comedy actors are only as good as the material. Robin Williams, for me, is one of the all time comedy greats - but in recent years; the material he's had to work with has been hit and miss I feel. So the idea of him doing a comedy sitcom with you is extremely exciting to me. How is the pilot going? It must be exciting -- and you are building a great cast around him too...

Robin is indeed a one of a kind genius. It is evident from the moment you meet him. The potential of his return to series television is an exciting thing to be a part of. When we discussed the series at first, we thought that maybe it would be wise to go out to the networks with an actor attached. Ken Miller, our casting director suggested Robin might be looking for a television series, and although it seemed a long shot we sent him the script. He loved it, met with David, and was on board immediately. Much the same thing happened with Kathy Bates on Harry's Law. We thought it was a long shot for her to do a series, sent her the script, and she said yes within a week. David's writing is a powerful magnet for actors in search of great material. The new show is called The Crazy Ones and it is set in the world of advertising. Robin plays the legendary head of an ad agency. In a strange reflection on real life, I started my career in advertising, moving to directing out of that. I directed hundreds of television commercials back in the 80's, culminating in my adaptation of The Feud, which brought me to TV. Full circle. Crazy huh?

Care to share?

Friday 29 March 2013

Success Ingredient: Time and Knowledge

Time will undoubtedly pass. In the two weeks just gone, how much have you written? How much have you read? How many movies have you seen? How many ideas have you put into action?

I was talking to someone last night whose Dad is a much loved film actor. And this weird thing happens when people make it big; everyone assumes they were always doing well, always the lucky ones. They think Brad Pitt was born as Brad Pitt the movie star, they have no inkling as to the amount of work that goes into a career.

If you're 20 and waiting to be discovered, forget about it. Whether you get discovered or not isn't the point -- the point is to get great at what you do.

You don't need to protect a reputation you haven't built yet. You don't need damage control when nobody cares about you anyway. Your job isn't to build an image of perfect movie star potential, your job is to make shit movies, to desperately need the work, to fight endlessly for the tiny pieces of progression.

Knowledge and experience count for everything. 

You're meant to make shit films that you share on Facebook. You're allowed to perform plays in dives to empty chairs. Paying your dues isn't some abstract concept, it's the heart of this industry. If you haven't got footage out there you're deeply embarrassed about, then you're not really an actor or director. 

If you're complaining on Facebook that nobody wants to pay you to act or write, you're just not at that level yet. You could bitch on Twitter, OR you could develop your own comedy character, write five pages and read an autobiography of someone who has been there and done it. 

And sure, you say you've done all this and still you're not where you want to be. Well you're  just not there yet! If you want steady progression, work in a supermarket, they have a fast-track programme to make you a manager in six months. Or if you want to earn money, work in finance!

Talent alone is not enough. X Factor and The Voice are selling you a false idea. I was working with kids in school recently, and they kept asking me, "how do I get famous?" They  thought that was the ideal. But I know famous people. The thing they hate most about their lives is that they're famous - because they can't buy a can of beans with being approached, harassed, scrutinised.

All of the best artists struggled. For years. Everyone I meet, including the people I interview on this site, they went through piles of dogshit to get to where they are.

Of course it will get you down. You'll get depressed and lose your creative juice. Why do you think I didn't blog for three months?

But you get back up, stronger and more knowledgeable than ever before.

This is a tough industry, but you win out in the end through knowledge mixed with enthusiasm and, of course, longevity. 

Care to share?

Wednesday 27 March 2013

It'll All Work Out

'It'll All Work Out', by Tom Petty. Such a heartbreaking song.

"When she needed me I wasn't round, that's the way it goes, it'll all work out."

One moment everything is so intense and then before you know it she's gone, you're gone, and it was just some time in life you once knew. Some time when you wasn't really there for her. You thought you were, but looking back, you see it from her angle. 

"Better off with him than here with me."

They think you're the one. She thinks, "How could there ever be a time when you're not the one I call?" But they move on and find a new person to call home and you're just a long gone memory of some year gone by before they met the person they were really meant to meet. 

"There were times apart, there were times together, I was pledged to her for worse or better."

Most of the time it isn't fear of commitment. It's fear of the other person breaking from the commitment and being okay with it. And off they go into a different life.

"Now the wind is high, and the rain is heavy, and the water's rising in the levy."

Life goes on. The wind blows as you're caught out in the rainswept streets, fully aware you're only a human being, crashing up against the pouring rain as you wonder why you still think of her.

"Still I think of her when the sun goes down, never goes away but it all works out."

It all works out in bittersweet many years after the fact ways.

"She had eyes so blue they looked like weather."

You never forget a girl like that, collapsing into your life, firing up your insides and making everything seem somehow so painfully and aggravatingly alive. And you knew at the time the hours were borrowed and then years later she is off out there doing whatever it is she's doing, a gone wild happy magic superstar in the night and you're stumbling home in the London rain.

The last minute of the song doesn't need any words, it's the journey. The bittersweet sound of time gone and places to go and exactly where you are right now. 

It'll all work out. 

Care to share?