Friday 17 May 2013

DAVID MOYES and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: A Blueprint For Genuine Achievement

"Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success, and is the key to being regarded honourably."
Jiro Uno, in the documentary 'Jiro Dreams Of Sushi'

David Moyes just landed the best role in British football. He's the new manager of Manchester United, taking over from quite possibly the greatest manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson has won every top trophy and accolade you can win within the game. And he didn't just win them once, but time and time again. 

'Arrested Development' is returning. A much-loved but short lived sitcom that ran in the mid-2000's, but was cancelled-- because no-one was watching. 

What has happened at Manchester United, and with 'Arrested Development', has a lot to teach us about what we do, and how we do it. 

'Arrested Development' never once courted the easy laugh, the marketable strategy. It excelled at being excellent, complex, and hilarious. It is a show I have watched over and over and over and over again; and the laughs still come. The network never supported AD, and the viewers, in the end, never showed up. The question with TV is always, 'how do we market it?', 'how do we profit?' 

At least, that's how it used to be. That's what they thought the game was about. It's like football:

Jose Mourinho is a much-loved, often controversial manager, who has always had an eye on the Manchester United job. Why wouldn't he? League titles in England, Spain, and Italy; he's a masterful tactician and motivator, with bundles of ideas, talent and charisma. 

There have been many big name managers coming to the UK in recent years, such as Roberto Mancini, André Villas-Boas, Carlo Ancelotti, not to mention the many top British managers, Harry Redknapp, Sam Allardyce, Brendan Rogers. Each of those coaches have promised much, often delivered success, other times not. 

But David Moyes got the Man Utd job. He has been the manager of Everton FC for eleven years. He never won a trophy. Never achieved what so many see as success. 

But Everton never had money to spend on players. Their budget is minimal. And time and again, the best players would leave. Mikel Arteta, Wayne Rooney, Tim Cahill; and so many more. Yet under Moyes, the club went from being a team fighting for Premier League survival every year, to not only surviving, but pushing the top ten, and often the top four. 

Gradually, year by year, people within the game, and true fans of the sport; began to realise what a fantastic job he was doing. Season after season, Everton were playing some of the best football in the league, and no team would want to visit Goodison Park. 

So you might think that true accomplishment is high viewer numbers, or becoming the Chelsea FC manager with an unlimited budget to buy players from around the world. But there is something beautiful and fulfilling about the route of David Moyes, and the return of 'Arrested Development'. 

They're truly earned. 

"These days the first thing people want is an easy job. Then, they want lots of free time. And then, they want lots of money. But they aren't thinking of building their skills. When you work at a place like Jiro's, you are committing to a trade for life."
-Shrimp Dealer, in 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'

It's like Jiro Uno, in the must-watch documentary 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'; his mentality and work ethic is alien to most British and American people. Here we work long hours, constantly pushing for the better job, the bigger payslip. We forget to become excellent. 

Jiro managed to earn the bigger pay packet, merely through achieving true excellence. If you go to his restaurant in Tokyo now, you have to pay the equivalent of £200 per meal, just for a few bits of sushi. Yet people do it, because it's the best sushi in the world. £200 is great value. 

'Arrested Development' lives in the hearts of its fans. They know every line, they feel a sense of crazy joyous excitement any time anyone mentions a banana stand or hop-on. The show has a depth to it that is extremely rare. It has excellence. 

"I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct."
-Steve Martin

People get fame mixed up with success. If being on the red carpet is what you really want, you can just buy a ticket, or win a competition on the radio. David Moyes quietly got on with the job he had, in the best possible way. He rarely got linked to the big jobs in football, but then the biggest one in the game came along, and it was his - and deservedly so. 

That's why we're all so excited about the return of 'Arrested Development'. It's the best there is, it means more than the other shows. 

Whether you're writing scripts, coaching the football team, making sushi or running a banana stand, you have to focus on your craft. 

"The one thing you have to do is definitely sacrifice and persevere - it's not always a golden path of riches."
-Sir Alex Ferguson 

Care to share?

Thursday 16 May 2013

Knowledge / Ability / Talent Scale

I meet a lot of young actors. And often, we have these wonderful conversations about actors we love, styles we adore. The actor speaks about the importance of subtlety. I nod in agreement, saying I like the acting to seem almost imperceptible. They agree wholeheartedly.

And then I see them act, and it's awful. Wildly over the top. 

An artist can have a level of knowledge that they can't yet reach in their work.

Some actors are born with natural ability. They stood up on stage at five years old and all the parents said "wow, she HAS
 something." This actor, filled with confidence and a sense of entitlement, fails to take the time to truly learn the craft. This actor is constantly in a huff, wondering why she's out of work.

A good career happens when the knowledge is high and the ability is high. 

And that's why it takes so long to get great.

This isn't just about actors, I was using them to make a point. It's about all artists.

The amount of talent in each person, of course, varies greatly. But talent isn't the defining factor.

A weird thing happens in this industry. What happens? You land a job. And eventually, you land another one.

For example, an actor is starting out, and they can only get student films, nobody else wants to know. So they act in seven student films, and they're all terrible.

Yet the actor, armed with a huge amount of new knowledge and experience, starts getting cast in short films and web-episodes by talented independent film directors.

And then, two years later, the actor gets a line on a TV show and a small paid role in a feature film.

These things happen, in a gradual upward trajectory, based on the knowledge and experience that the actor has been building.

The actor could potentially fear a return to dull student films, but it's unlikely. So much has been learned and the actor now knows how to audition, how to take a meeting. The actor knows how to land a project, at a particular level. 

This is all knowledge, learned through being active in the game.

The actors who are at home, bitching about the lack of opportunities, are often the most talented actors around. That's why they're moaning, because their natural ability isn't being recognised.

It's because they're missing out on the crucial ingredient: knowledge. These actors apply to castings with a few clicks, and wait for opportunities to land. Or they nag director friends for roles every two weeks. They can't figure out why life is so hard.

And you ask them how many books they've read recently, ask them if they're getting together with other actors and working on their craft, and they aren't.

They think talent is enough. They think the film industry is an episode of X Factor.

And if you think I'm bitching about actors, let me tell you writers and directors are exactly the same. If you're not out shooting every week, then spending your evenings reading, watching, learning; then you're not really going anywhere.

The more work you do, the more ability and skill you attain. Meanwhile, the more old movies you see, the more Danny Boyle interviews you watch and the more classes you attend, the better you get.

Sometimes the artists with the least talent succeed. It's because they somehow seem to instinctively know that hard work will get them there.

It does.

And that's valid, they deserve it. You can't rely on talent, it's not the most important thing.

Care to share?

Monday 13 May 2013

Does ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT Have Too Many In-Jokes? Come On!

I can think of nothing greater, TV-wise, than the return of maeby the greatest sitcom of our times for its 4th season. While many would say they've made a huge mistake, I am beyond excited. And while it's unlikely to suddenly find a mass audience, I would at least expect the occasional hop-on. 

There have been careless whispers for years, we always hoped it would return. And now - it has! No longer must us long suffering fans feel blue.

It ain't easy being a fan of this show. It ain't easy hoping for its return year after year. Now it's upon us, I have no idea what to do with myself, but I am sure of one thing: we need more balloons.

Who'd have thought, back when it ended, that it could ever return? That there'd be more episodes in the kitty, that it wouldn't be the last chance to see 'these'.

Many non-fans are put off by the in-jokes shared between fans. Do they have a point, or are they just chicken? Maybe it's just an illusion. 

You're either a fan or you're not. I can't even get my hermano to watch it. Anyway -- if you have good taste in film and TV, which surely you do, otherwise you'd be surfing a law blog rather than reading this -- do yourself a favour and watch the first three seasons. Don't be a pussy. 

Care to share?

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?