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by Sean Axmaker

Contributor

Alan Ball: “It’s not my job as a filmmaker to make people feel comfortable”

I had the opportunity to talk to Alan Ball about Towelhead, his first feature-film script after American Beauty and his feature directing debut, when he presented the film at the Seattle International Film Festival in June, 2008. Now that the film is getting a limited release in New York and L.A. (with a wider release to follow), I share our talk about Towelhead, Six Feet Under and the differences in writing for TV and film.

Be warned: we discuss key scenes of the film and there are spoilers here.

Why did you choose this novel, Towelhead, about a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl dealing with adolescence in a culture inundated with Desert Storm, as your next feature project and your directorial debut?

You know, it’s interesting. I actually had a spec screenplay that I was ready to go out with, it’s a screwball comedy set in the thirties and I was just putting the finishing touches on that when my agent called me and said, ‘I have this manuscript that I just got and I think you might respond to it,’ so he sent it over and I read it and I couldn’t put it down. There was something about the story and the characters and the tone of it that just really spoke to me and I could see the movie totally in my head when I was reading it. And I loved the story. I loved the fact that it was a not hysterical take on what is a very common experience for a lot of young women, and young men, for that matter, and also that when I got to the end of it, the character of Jasira had not been destroyed by what she went through. I found that really sort of refreshing, because usually any story that’s told about a young girl who has some sort of improper sexual interaction with an older man, the feeling at the end of that story is, ‘That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her,’ and she’s destroyed. Not the case when it’s about a young boy and an older woman, then it’s like, ‘Oh-ho, score!’ And so I found that there was something really interesting about that aspect of the story and that this traumatic experience she goes through kind of makes her a stronger, deeper person and also allows her to take control over her own life and her own body in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to had this not happened to her and I found that really kind of refreshing and I don’t want to use a word like revolutionary, but it did make me realize that I’d never really seen a story of this nature told in that way that didn’t fetishize the victim status of the girl and also was kind of sex positive and also presented a young female character who was curious and sexually assertive without punishing her for it or making it seem like she was “asking for it.” I just really responded to it so I called my agent on Monday and said, ‘I would love to option this book. I want to do it myself, I don’t want to take it to studio because I can only imagine what trying to develop this in a studio would lead to.’

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Love and Death – Ira Sachs on ‘Married Life’

Ira Sachs’ Married Life arrives on DVD this week. His follow-up to his Sundance Grand Prize-winning breakthrough film Forty Shades of Blue is an ambitious challenge: a 1940s melodrama of adultery and murder played as wry comedy of manners and directed in a naturalistic style with a modern sensibility. Perhaps comedy is a misleading label. Call it an irony, and a deftly played one at that: a cool, wry noir cast in a sleek yet understated period décor and played with a maturity and introspection in place of overheated emotions. In April, I talked with Sachs about the film, his great cast (Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Rachel McAdams), the period and that subtle alchemy of tone and genre (the biggest revelation was the film’s never-identified setting: “Married Life” takes place in Seattle!). A digest version of the phone interview ran in the Seattle P-I as a “Moment With Ira Sachs” featurette. Here is the complete interview.

What was it about the book, “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” that made you say: “This is my next project.”?

I’ve always been interested in psychological stories and character-driven stories. Right before I started working on this, I’d seen a lot of Joan Crawford movies and Bette Davis movies and Barbara Stanwyck movies and Fred MacMurray movies, a kind of old-fashioned storytelling that was usually over-the-top and larger-than-life in terms of the plot, but something about them really resonated for me personally. So I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make one of those kinds of films without being a retro film. I just liked the way those stories were told. I spent a summer reading old pulp mysteries. People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because there’s something more you can play with. And what I liked about this book particularly was that in the course of the story, when you learn more about each of the characters, you realize that, at its heart, it’s a really humanist story about relationships. Even though it’s a genre film, it’s also a humanist film. What I thought was quite true about the emotional stakes of these people within their marriages, even again if it’s over the top in its structure, it resonated for me personally within my own relationships.

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The Last Round-up: Budd Boetticher’s Great Westerns Coming to DVD

Last year, in a piece I wrote for GreenCine, I dreamed up my fantasy list of box sets and special editions I wanted to see (heck, I wanted to OWN) in the coming years. Less than year later, two of those dream DVD sets have been announced. (I doubt my piece had much to do with them, but hey, it was a dream list and I can fantasize about its impact.)

Universal is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil with a two-disc special edition featuring all three versions of the film (the 1958 release version, the longer preview cut discovered in the mid-seventies, and the 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction), plus commentary on each disc by different folks, the complete Welles memo, a couple of featurette, interviews and such. This will be the first time either of the those earlier two versions have actually been home video in their original state (the old VHS and laserdisc releases of the film were of a studio job that combined footage from both of those old versions into one hybrid version). The anniversary branding explains the delay in the release, something fans have been expecting ever since the Murch-helmed reconstruction. The release date October 7. See the press release for the complete details on the release.

Paramount's DVD release of "Seven Men From Now"
Paramount's DVD release of "Seven Men From Now"

A release sure to receive less publicity but one that is equally exciting to me, however, is Sony’s Budd Boetticher Box Set, a collection of the Columbia “Ranown” films directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The release has been long in the coming as only a couple of the films had been released to VHS (and those on substandard Goodtimes videos). Paramount’s 2005 DVD release of Seven Men From Now, the first collaboration between Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, only whetted my appetite for the rest of the films.

Seven Men From Now (1956) set the tone and lean style for series, as if it was carved it in the stone-like visage of Randolph Scott’s weatherbeaten face. Boetticher had just come off a two-year stint with Universal, where he cranked out journeyman assignments (including his first westerns) with a muscular sense of action and place, and the austere little crime thriller The Killer Is Loose when producer John handed him the terse script by Burt Kennedy. More than perfect fit with Boetticher, it brought the best in the director. Boetticher pares himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenches up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. He makes Kennedy’s dialogue sing like lyrics and turns Scott “limitations” as an actor into an expressive element of character: inexpressive and inflexible, hard, his voice that masks his feelings and his lanky body is perfectly at ease setting a horse or handling a gun but less sure in moments of emotional intimacy.

Producer/star Scott realized that he had a winning combination and immediately signed Boetticher up to direct for his own company at Columbia Pictures, where he cranked out low budget westernsthat made enormous profits. The made five films together at Columbia – The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) – three of them scripted by Kennedy. From The Tall T to Comanche Station, you can see Boetticher and Kennedy honing the style and structure established in 7 Men to a laconic austerity. That cycle stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford: tight, taut, often savage little pictures that are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character.

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‘Redbelt’ on DVD – A second round with Mamet’s magnificent martial arts drama

David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.

Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry: Mamet's honorable warrior in a dishonorable world

Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture – heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.

In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.

Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.

It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.

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Steve Coogan: “Can we get away with this?”

I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows (aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song – but of course – and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)

I just want you to like me... and watch my show
Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge: I just want you to like me... and watch my show

I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.

You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.

With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.

In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?

It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.

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Cinematic Archeology on DVD – “Orson Welles’ Don Quixote”? Not Even Close

Don Quixote on DVD
Don Quixote on DVD - Finally?

Don Quixote is one “lost” Welles film that is surely doomed to remain that way: unfinished, fragmented, a puzzle with pieces that have been recut so many times they simply don’t fit together. Welles jokingly renamed the film “When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote?” because he continued to rewrite and reconceptualize the film as he went along. It’s as if the act of creating in the moment was the point, not the finished production. Financed solely by himself, it perhaps became a project so personal that he couldn’t finish, and it remained in fragments when he died in 1985.

The DVD release of the 1992 “reconstruction” haphazardly cobbled together by legendary exploitation director turned indifferent B-movie hack Jesus Franco (he was an assistant to Welles during some of the principle photography) isn’t about to change that. Oja Kodar, Welles’ muse/partner/collaborator for the final decades of his life, sold the rights to the footage in her possession to Franco and producer Patxi Irigoyen (they also acquired the footage from Suzanne Cloutier), but was terribly disappointed at the resulting film. According to longtime Welles cameraman and friend Gary Graver, Franco and Irigoyen used practically every scrap of footage they had, including sequences he had shot for a Spanish TV documentary he made in the middle of production (another little project to get more production funds). Certainly it’s hard enough to guess at Welles’ intentions from the notes and partially-edited footage (in various stages of rough cut) left behind over the course of a decade of shooting on the run and dragging the footage around from country to country as he tinkered with the editing, but there is little evidence of any serious attempt at a legitimate reconstruction from the film on display, and it’s missing vital footage that remains in the possession of the film’s original editor, Mauro Bonanni, who was not invited to participate in the project.

From what I know about Welles and the history of the film, Franco’s version is not even an approximation, never mind a reconstruction. There’s no story here, simply a random succession of events and images and a whole lot of narrative detours. But even as a visual record of Welles’ raw footage it’s a travesty. It’s a given that much of the existing rough cut footage is in rough condition, showing the signs of wear and tear from years of tinkering on moviolas and dragging the reels from country to country. But Franco and company have, if anything, compounded the problems with hazy, blurry copies of the master footage and video noise introduced as a result of the project’s most egregious crimes against Welles: the video manipulation of footage to layer images one on another. At one point, the sails of a windmill are stretched across the screen (to suggest a windmill come to life and reach out to Quixote? was that in the notes, Franco, or was it all your inspiration?). The soundtrack is no better. Franco uses fragments of recorded dialogue (with Welles providing the voices of both Quixote and Sancho as well as the narration) and fills in the rest of the film with voices that barely resemble Welles’ work. You have to have to watch the mouths move just to pick out the speakers in this dissonant audio mess.

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George Lucas: The Last Champion of Colonialist Cinema

Way back in the original Star Wars (before it was branded with a “IV” and subtitled “A New Hope”), it did not escape notice that at the end of the film, it was human heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo who got the glory while the non-humans – the wookie, Chewbacca, and the two robots – stood to the side to watch the royal blessing laid upon the Republic’s two great white hopes.

What does a wookie need to do to get a little respect?
What’s a Wookiee need to do to get a little respect?

After six feature and countless spin-off reiterations, not much has changed. The Jedis (mostly human, though at least those ranks are not completely Caucasian) roam around the galaxy like the master race, swooping in to save the lesser races with their gift of protection and leadership. There are a few token races sprinkled through the supporting parts, mostly providing exposition and exclamations, and only Yoda has any real authority or distinction among them. The droids are essentially happy slaves. These robots talk and offer opinions and often suggest emotions, while R2D2 and C3PO have distinctive personalities. They’re offered up as characters as real as the humans, but in the scheme of this enlightened era of interstellar unity, they are treated as servants or pets at best and cannon fodder at worst. Decades after Blade Runner and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a little arrogant to give a robot personality and self-awareness without suggesting they might be, in their own way, people.

All right, maybe that’s picking apart a little point, but the last two Star Wars features introduced the Clone Army, a race of genetically hatched humanoid soldiers designed solely to fight. They are treated, essentially, as organic robots, flesh and blood slaves sent to fight the Republic’s battles.

I’m sure Lucas never thought any of this through, which is really the point. What began as his paean to the innocent attitudes of the old sci-fi serials and the swashbuckling thrills of classic Hollywood adventures and pirate movies feels more and more like Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist adventurers in the stars. Keep Reading