Side Effects may include disappointment. Ostensibly director Stephen Soderbergh's last feature film effort (at least for a while), and starring many of his frequent collaborators (Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jude Law), this Scott Z. Burns-penned pharma-thriller has a killer premise. But I think the filmmakers picked the wrong protagonist to follow, thus leaving me stranded when the plot makes a left-field twist.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is the depressed wife of an inside trader (Tatum), sprung from the joint after four years. Her "hopelessness" leads her into a relationship with a psychiatrist (Law) who ends up putting her on a brand new drug, Ablixa. It causes some unexpected side effects.
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Deadline: Record deal for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon's Addiction Sundance hit / New Record for The Way, Way Back - I don't expect this to spark a trend of big money distribution deals for indies, but here's hoping.
LA Times: How did a newbie make an unapproved film at Disneyland? - It remains to be seen whether Disney will allow anyone outside of Sundance to see Escape from Tomorrow.
Movie Morlocks: Ricky Jay vs. Melies - I personally think The Illusionist is inferior to The Prestige partly because of the CGI, but an interesting essay nonetheless.
No Film School: Want an Interactive Master Class with Legendary Spielberg Color Timer? There's an App for That - I bought the app. Hopefully will review soon.
YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
A good story fills in the blanks. A great story leaves some blanks for the audience.
OLD POSTS UPDATED:
Parsing Kathryn Bigelow's Response on Torture - New link to an Op-Ed by CIA director which factchecks the film.
Film Collaboration Websites - Added Dynamo
Your Weekend Viewing: Fish - fixed link and video embed
Raising $8M For My Dream Project: An Interview with Actor, Producer and Indie Film Fundraiser Will Tiao
You have your script, you have your actors, you have the creative team in place. Now you need the money.
Indie filmmakers are often full-time fundraisers. Rather than lament this, some choose to embrace it. Since you need the dough, you may as well become an expert in how to find it. That's where Will Tiao comes in. Coming out of the world of politics, he took the Washington, D.C. fundraising techniques and put them to work to fund his independent film Formosa Betrayed. I spoke with him via email about his methods, some fundraising tricks that indies can use, Kickstarter, the future of crowdfunding and more.
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MAKING THE MOVIE: Hi Will, I see from your biography online that you're a fellow Kansan. Did your love of film begin during your childhood in Manhattan, Kansas?
Will Tiao: Are you from Kansas too? That's great! To be honest with you, I never imagined when I was growing up there that I would be in movies. I was always more focused on politics. But ironically (or not), all of my friends growing up were actors or worked in theatre (some of them still do), and I played cello so there were always lots of musicians around. So definitely I was always attracted to the creative arts, and watched movies as much as any teenager would. The only movie we ever owned was Star Wars and that was on Betamax, so we must have watched it a thousand times!
MTM: After working in government -- for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations -- what sparked the decision to change careers to filmmaking?
WT: When I was working in Washington, D.C. during President Clinton's second term, I took an acting class just for fun. That class led to a play, then an agent discovered me, and suddenly I was getting offers for plays, commercials, TV pilots, and independent films. I got to a point by the middle of President Bush's first term, that I was busy enough that I had to make a choice of staying in the government or giving my acting career a shot. Clearly I chose the latter, and moved to New York to study with a famous acting coach, then later to Los Angeles. After acting for a few years, I wanted to create my own projects, which led me to producing.
MTM: When did you begin to get interested in film financing?
WT: I realized pretty quickly after moving to Los Angeles that Hollywood is very similar to Washington in that it follows 'The Golden Rule' -- WHOEVER HAS THE GOLD, RULES. Translation: if you're able to raise financing for your own films, you can pretty much write your own ticket -- not unlike presidential candidates . I realized that if I could fundraise by using the rules and techniques I learned in D.C., I could apply them to raising financing for my films.
One thing I learned from both Democrats and Republicans is that they use similar techniques to raise financing. First they clearly find like minded people who are willing to support them. Then, they encourage those people to go out and find others with money who might be interested. They gather these people and then show up at the lead person's home or get a hotel conference room, and hold a fundraiser there. Then you have a contact person to help you raise funds from their like-minded wealthy friends. That's exactly what I did.
MTM: Tell me a bit about this film, Formosa Betrayed. How did you go about raising the $8M budget?
Two days ago director Kathryn Bigelow published some words about the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, presumably to try to address critics and perhaps head off a rumored Oscar voter boycott. There have been some excellent examinations of the film and the controversy already, most recently this nuanced essay by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic and the thoughtful comments of film geek Dave Chen. If you read my review, you know that I feel the movie can and will be read as sympathetic with torture and torturers. If what our public officials have said repeatedly, that information gained through torture did not ultimately lead to Bin Laden, then the movie is also wrong on facts, and irresponsibly wrong, in that it may lead to more torture in the future.
Based on her words in the LA Times, I'm not sure Bigelow understands or is willing to acknowledge this possibility. Let's parse:
For a long time, measuring more years than I care to count, I thought the movie that became "Zero Dark Thirty" would never happen. The goal, to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history, was exciting and worthy enough, or so it seemed. But there were too many obstacles, too many secrets, and politicians standing in the way of an easy path.
Note: There are now politicians criticizing her film, and worried about it leaking state secrets. Right off the bat, Bigelow is trying to paint the criticism as politically-motivated. However, I'm not sure who the politicians are trying to help in this case, other than the United States, by trying to get the message out that trying to obtain information through torture in real life does not work like it does on 24.
If you torture someone, they will say whatever it is they think you want to hear. And the movie actually shows this, by the way. Ammar, when asked when an attack is going to take place, rattles off the name of every day of the week. The attack still happens. However, it is the later scenes that start to build a case in favor of torture and torturers. Ammar is so disoriented from the torture that they are able to fool him into revealing the name of Bin Laden's courier. After the torture program is shut down, the protagonists of the story complain that it hampers their ability to do their jobs. Read more...
This show gives some great insight into one of the top director/d.p. collaborations going: Bob Zemekis and Don Burgess. Starting with Forrest Gump, Zemekis upgraded his 2nd Unit d.p. Burgess to top tier, and he hasn't looked back, making nine of the most technically-challenging films, right up to last years Flight.
Burgess and Zemekis talk through some clips from films that inspired them, including Lawrence of Arabia, Carnal Knowledge, The French Connection and The Godfather, before getting into their own work. They show and discuss challenging shots from Gump, Contact and What Lies Beneath. And they also show and discuss part of the plane crash sequence from Flight and talk about their camera philosophy on Cast Away.
The last part of the show involves questions from the audience. Some are better than others, the highlight being a question from an inspiring production designer about how how d.p.'s and art directors work together. Zemekis tells the story of a scout for Forrest Gump, where Burgess calculated the angle of the sun months later at the place where they would be shooting, and suggested building a house set 22 degrees different than it was laid out. Sure enough, come shooting time the light from the sun lit the house just right, showing off the work of the set designer in, well, it's best light.
NOTE: TCM says there are no current plans to make the show available for streaming or download, but it will "encore" many times on the channel.
Paul Calhoun has helpfully edited clips from Coen Brothers films to illustrate the discussion between stand-up comics Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron:
I would say that the Coens do things beyond just translating Warner Brothers cartoon characters into the real world, but this definitely lead me to think about how their films compare to those of, say, Tim Burton or Steven Spielberg or even Gore Verbinski -- directors who move between animation and live action. Spielberg is famous for talking about the attention to detail necessary in animation. I think directors who realize this power begin to view the world of their films as design opportunities. The Coens are great at this as well. Even something like A Serious Man, which seems so rooted to a time and place, has an overlay of very careful visual design.
Anyway, the WTF podcast from which this clip is taken is great. The last one I listened to was with actor Michael Keaton, and it had some great insight into how he worked with Tim Burton to create the Beetlejuice and Batman characters. Here's hoping host Marc Maron one day gets to interview people like Tim Burton and the Coen brothers directly!
There is no rule that says a movie has to be realistic, and none that says it can't be as theatrical as a stage play. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard -- himself well known for reflexive, deconstructive stageplays such as The Real Thing and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead -- here present the classic Leo Tolstoy novel on a theater set, an ever-changing opera house to which the action returns again and again.
Technically, there are also exteriors and other interiors. And certainly, the elaborate backdrops and well-dressed extras mean this choice wasn't made to save money. I liked it as a cinematic experiment. I'm not sure it does much for the story, except the amazing scene where Anna, disgraced in society for carrying out an affair, decides not to hide her face. She dresses to the nines and strolls into the opera house, where she immediately becomes the center of attention. After some stinging social rebukes and feeling angry eyes, her facade of nonchalance crumbles. She is not as strong as she thought.
And maybe this is the essential nature of the character. I never got more than a few pages into the Tolstoy. Certainly, given that I did not understand why she does what she does at the very end of the film, this movie version of the story is probably a failure on that most basic level.
I don't blame Keira Knightley for not making the internal life of the character plain to the audience, I mostly blame Stoppard, who gives her some terribly clunky lines -- lots of talk of "her demon" without explaining what that is. Does she blame her mood swings on this "demon"? Is it like Socrates' 'daimon' - his conscience? Or is it 'the imp of the perverse' that leads her into a doomed romance? I don't blame Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for getting out while he still can.
The other characters are similarly opaque, even the bland lovers Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Only Jude Law's Karenin, the comical Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden) and his suffering wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) felt well-rounded.
I despised the aristocratic assumptions of this film, for which I guess Tolstoy is probably to blame. The lower classes are there to symbolically be crushed, or to offer salvation to the nobles for living a life of disconnected privilege. The story, as told in swirling dances, is too rushed and crammed to encompass more levels of the Russian society. Or perhaps it would all fall apart if we weigh Anna's first-world problems against servitude and famines.
With all the choreography of cast and set dec, this movie is really a backdoor musical. It's a fun experiment, and it is sumptuously-produced. For that reason, I enjoyed watching it. I think this approach might be better suited to stories everyone already knows too well, like Star Wars or Spiderman. The story of Anna Karenina, crossing, as it does, many years and many characters, seems to deserve more of an epic romance treatment. Your Dr. Zhivago or your English Patient. But until some mogul with a soft spot for Tolstoy coughs up the dough for that version, this is a worthwhile substitute.
More like director Andrew Dominic's Australian crime drama Chopper than his cult western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly disappointed several people in my surprisingly-large mid-week audience. But not I. I kinda loved this film, which is a stylish crime story told in florid dialogue and harsh, lurid camerawork.
The story of a card game getting shut down is paralleled none-too-subtlely with the 2008 banking crisis, which shut down the Wall Street casino for a few months. Trying to go one-to-one with figures in that recent history and the characters in this movie seems to me to be a fools game. (What, is Ray Liotta's character Lehman Brothers?) But the larger thematic point is a good one, and elevates what might have been a run-of-the-mill potboiler plot onto a higher intellectual level.
The filmmaking also elevates this tale. I loved the tense scene where the card game gets knocked over. I loved the drug-hazed narrative of Ben Mendelson's Russell. I loved the Weegee-esque frontal lighting in the scene where the Ray Liotta character gets beat up. (This was the first scene where patrons left my theater. And the second...) The slow-motion assassination of the same character, which uses raindrops and shattered glass to trace the paths of bullets.
From the opening abrupt sound edits, this movie proclaims itself as 'not for everyone'. I would not recommend it without knowing a person's taste in movies. But I personally enjoyed the hell out of it.
My complaints, besides the over-use of radio news reports to horn in the political backdrop, was in Scoot McNairy's choice of voice for his character, which seemed a bit of a put-on; and some terrible ADR in the scene in the car with Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt. Pitt was my favorite of the cast, but they were all excellent. A special spotlight for James Gandolfini, whose character has a great story-arc of utter uselessness and self-destruction.
Pitt's presence in Dominic's commercially-dubious movies gets them funded. I hope they continue to collaborate. While their films may never appeal to the mainstream, the fruit of two great artists working together makes for a tasty harvest.
It walks the tight rope, it succeeds. I was not overwhelmingly impressed. To be sure, the radical new element -- involving James Bond's backstory, and some physical and mental impairments -- was handled wonderfully. (The script is by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan.) M has always been Bond's surrogate mother. Here, the metaphor is no longer metaphorical. When Javier Bardem's delicious villain Silva, a distorted image of Bond himself -- a rogue agent who kills through intellect rather than brute force, and who is a maneater instead of a ladykiller -- says "Mommy has been very bad," he means it.
Only we never believe Bond would turn against M (despite whether he has pitched for the other team... in bed). There are more notes of false suspense, too. The movie, which features an Aston Martin with hidden machine guns and an ejector seat, asks whether Bond is an anachronism. But the question is rhetorical, as the box office figures for this film show. "James Bond will return," though not as Daniel Craig. The formula will continue to transcend the actor, even ones as iconic as Craig or Connery.
What is it about Bond that the film nails? The sexy shaving scene? (The Berenice Marlohe shower scene was creepy, rather than sexy, so I don't nominate that.) Is it the way he straightens his cuffs after leaping twenty feet from a crane that has just sheared off the back of a train car? (This moment got huge applause in my screening.) The elegant casino confrontation?
There was recently a supercut that took a few minutes from each Bond film -- played to form a semi-coherent story. None of these films spent much time peering into what makes Bond tick. An evil plot was afoot, and the only superspy who could stop it was our elegant British agent. The preparation of his martini always mattered more than whether or not he once was an orphaned Scottish nobleman.
I won't lie. I never thought about Bond's origins before. His only motivations seemed to me to kill bad guys while looking good and getting laid. As I said, Skyfall walks a tightrope. Here, Bond has these same motives, but he's also physically and psychologically damaged. He's less a symbol and more a man. And in this way, he is diminished.
As an independent filmmaker, one of your biggest line items will be insurance. Unless you are going super-guerrilla, bandito-style and going without permits and permission, you're going to at least need some basic production insurance. I've found that having insurance is a big deal when convincing locations to let you shoot there. (Knowing they are covered for a million dollars in damages does a lot to assuage a nervous restaurant owner, or your neighbor with the backyard pool.)
You'll also need an insurance broker for the pesky "loss payee" and "additional insured" ACCORD forms that all those equipment rental places demand.
Jon Reiss recently send out a call for recommendations on Twitter for production insurance companies for indie filmmakers and they responded in droves... (more...)
Kevin Willmott -- writer, director, sometimes actor and two-time Sundance filmmaker (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, The Only Good Indian) -- is one of my indie filmmaking idols. He has parlayed his experience making movies into a career teaching filmmaking at the University of Kansas which, in turn, has given him further resources to keep making films. The guy never stops making movies -- personal, meaningful, funny, dramatic and one-of-a-kind movies.
Kevin recently gave me a sneak peek at one of his latest projects, Destination Planet Negro, in an interview conducted via email. Read on to learn more about this sure-to-be-provocative film and Kevin's clever techniques for low-budget sci-fi filmmaking... (more...)