Making the Movie


The Joy of Casting Local Actors

Article from a talented filmmaker from across the pond: Louis Chan... -JO

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Pastiche posterCasting Local Actors: Finding interesting people who can hold the camera's interest

Having recently graduated and with little experience in the industry, it was always going to be difficult to find professional actors for the roles in my work. Knowing this, I wrote a short called "Pastiche" with certain local characters in mind that I knew from the area in which the story is to take place, Kensal Rise (North West London). The main antagonist, Yardie Mason, could easily come off as a clichéd over-the-top gangster, so it was essential to find the right non-actor who could give the character the depth I imagined.

Prior to beginning the script, I was at a friend’s birthday party having a conversation with a guy called TK, when a bloke called Mark walked into the room demanding to know who had stolen his joint. Mark is in his early fifties, about six-foot-three, with an imposing frame and long dreadlocks. I was immediately reminded of a greying Predator. Straight away, I knew I had someone who had the externals. Everyone looked sheepishly around; especially TK. Mark snatched the joint out of TK’s hand and started berating him for being a ‘slag’ and a ‘teef’ (thief) in yardie. TK responded with equally funny put-downs about Mark’s clothes and the whole scene just began to get increasingly more hilarious. At the time, I was completely unaware that they were good friends and had been acting like this with each other since they were children. I remember thinking: if ever I could get those two in a room together and film them without their knowing, I would have possibly one of the funniest sketch shows going.

About six months later, I managed to get in contact with Mark and have a sit down with him and TK. Although neither had ever acted, they were familiar with the context of the film and even know people whom the characters I had written reminded them of. Naturally, Mark and TK were initially skeptical they would be able to learn the lines and deliver them credibly. What I tried to explain was that these were characters that most probably had an upbringing quite similar to their own -- a different choice here or there could have resulted in their going the other way. One of the biggest themes of "Pastiche" is of hybridity in London and how cultures are increasingly overlapping. This was something that interested Mark and allowed us to create a character that -- whilst having a thick cockney accent -- would often drift into Patois/Yardie dialect without noticing. This is something we built on during rehearsals and when shooting his scene. It was crucial to the delivery that we had a project that the actor not only enjoyed but also believed in.

The performances of my local non-actors totally exceeded my expectations. Now, I can't imagine having done the film any other way. All in all, if you are looking to make a no-budget film, I highly recommend you look for people who are local to the area and can personally relate to what your film is about. "Pastiche" is about social change in a particular area and this is something that locals who have lived there for years, are always going to feel quite passionately about. When you combine that with someone who has the physical presence and a natural ability for comedy, you’ve definitely got something cinematic to work with.

4241_178424795230_1814728_nLouis Chan is a 23-year-old London-born filmmaker who recently completed his first short film "Pastiche". (Watch it on YouTube.) He has just completed work on his second short film "Maestra" and is in the process of setting up his own production company, FreshLook Films. You can find out more about Louis and his films on Twitter and YouTube.


Movie Reviews: 12 Years A Slave and The Fifth Estate

And now, two reviews of movies based on memoirs with Bandersnatch Cumberbund Benedict Cumberbatch in their casts and numbers in their titles.

12 Years A Slave

Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black musician and farmer in upstate New York, this Steve McQueen-directed (Hunger, Shame film depicts how Northup was forcibly kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) witnesses and experiences many atrocities before he is finally restored to freedom and his family. This story, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, is one of the reasons Northerners were willing to fight to end the barbaric institution.

The script, by John Ridley (Red Tails), makes some alterations to Northup's best seller. One of the best comes early on, when instead of seeing Northup get sick on a boat, the film dramatizes why Northup doesn't fight back against his captors. Later, when he has a chance to run away, he runs into a lynching, providing another clear point for modern audiences who may not understand why Northup doesn't risk escape more often over the twelve brutal years.

Ejiofor is one of the most charismatic actors working today and I defy anyone not to feel the palpable relief and confusion in the scene of his reunion with his family. McQueen's unshakeable collaborator Michael Fassbender is also back, as the tyrannical slave owner Edwin Epps. The filmmakers darkly insinuate that the sadism of slavery holds, for Epps, a sexual charge.

Fassbender, apparently terrible as a Texan in The Counsellor, manages okay with the Southern accent (notoriously tricky for Brit thesps). Cumberbatch, however, as Baptist preacher and slave owner William Ford, does not. He is a tremendous talent (see below), but miscast here.

Also miscast are Tarran Killam and Scoot McNairy as the hustlers who lure Northup to Washington. They seem to have walked out of a whimsical Terry Gilliam film. I did not care for the performance of Adepero Oduye, who plays Eliza, a fellow slave who is sold away from her children. Her story is dramatic, but I never believed the emotional truth behind her wordy dialogue. Contrariwise, the other great female role in the film, Patsey, is a revelation as played by Lupita Nyong'o -- utterly convincing, supremely heartbreaking. From the summaries I've read of the book, I believe much of her story has been added by the filmmakers, to great effect. It provides the movie's most harrowing scenes, where Solomon himself is put into the position of a slaveowner. The moral stain of slavery debases both whites and blacks alike.

McQueen's directing is far more conventional than his previous films, and the fractured timeline editing, which is (sort of) abandoned does nothing to enhance an inherently terrifying and horrific tale. Likewise, Hans Zimmer's score full of Hollywood-movie clichés is a disservice to such a profound film.

I know some folks find "horse race" discussions distasteful, but if you care for my opinion, I would not say, as some have said, 12 Years A Slave is a lock to win Best Picture. It is an excellent film, an important film, and would be a deserving winner. I think McQueen has better films yet to come, and I think the "American Holocaust" of slavery is only just beginning to be explored on film. This movie points the way.

The Fifth Estate

The general public may not know that "The Fourth Estate" is a nickname for the journalists that hold the government to account. A title with "Assange" or "Wikileaks" would've given this movie a better shot commercially.

But no matter. The movie fails itself, too often pausing to let Julian Assange spill more of his weird backstory, too often letting the main character -- Wikileaks' #2 man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, upon whose book the story is based -- off too lightly for his actions.

I kept wishing for the Aaron Sorkin Social Network version of the film: a room full of characters who are smarter than you, trading witty barbs, digging themselves deeper into a moral abyss. Josh Singer's script has the cool idea of visualizing Wikileaks itself as a giant nether-space filled with identical computer terminals. Sadly, as directed by Bill Condon (whose Kinsey remains one of the most under-rated films of the last decade), the metaphor never reaches its full visual potential. The overall art direction, likewise, seems to suggest that all computer people hang out at raves with lots of flashing lights and random images projected on walls. By the third such party, I began to feel monotony in the lives of these characters, who most definitely were not doing monotonous things.

In the film's weakest subplot, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci phone in their performances as State Department functionaries who must deal with the fallout of the release of the diplomatic cables. The tense scene of a source trying to escape Libya shows there was a better story here to be mined.

Daniel Brühl, as Berg, is an energy-suck. The reason to see the film is Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Julian Assange, played as a paranoid Asberger's revolutionary. At the end of the film, he is allowed to re-enact an interview of Assange's that criticizes the film we've just watched. Closeup, directly to lens, no camera movement. It's spellbinding.

If you can look past the film's self-important messaging, there really is a good point made about how journalism will never be the same, post-Wikileaks. Some news outlets, like the Washington Post, did not learn the lesson about creating secure channels for sources to make contact. After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tried them and found them wanting, he ended up collaborating with... guess who? It is no accident that the hero journalists in The Fifth Estate are the ones who work for The Guardian.


Movie Review: Captain Phillips

One of the most terribly-titled films also begins with one of the most terribly dull scenes. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is driven to the airport by his wife (Katherine Keener, whom we never see again). Clumsily, screenwriter Billy Ray (Breach) sets up the parallels between Phillips and his eventual captor, Somali pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Both have bosses putting pressure on them, yadda yadda. We get it.

On the flip side, the segments of the film set in the world of the pirates are among the best. We get a little bit of the economics of getting a job -- a qat bribe helps! -- and why the Somali pirates do what they do. (Anti-piracy advocates take heart, the movie is still slanted against them and toward the rah-rah Navy SEAL sniper team that comes to put an end to their enterprise.)

Director Paul Greengrass does what he did in United 93, casting non-actors in their real-world roles -- and it shows, sometimes egregiously. Luckily the Somali pirates, apparently found among a refugee community in Minnesota, are tremendous, especially Abdi. He more than holds his own against Tom Hanks, who gives a career performance, especially when the in-command captain finally lets go of all pretense of holding himself together.

Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse generate real tension, even though I knew the broad outlines of the story. The final act, when the pirates and their hostage are increasingly surrounded by the full might and power of Uncle Sam, is a knockout. Hanks, too, kicks into high gear.

While this film will inevitably be compared to Zero Dark Thirty, not least in that it re-writes President Obama's role entirely out of the story, it doesn't reach that level of verisimilitude. It does, however, provide a thrill-ride from beginning to end with only a few moments that seem Hollywoodized. And because it ends so strong, I recommend it. Those who get queasy with shaky camera footage on the big screen should definitely wait for home video.


Your Weekend Viewing: Bohemian Gravity

In case you still haven't seen it, check out this a capella physics remix of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".

I'm not only floored by the amount of work that went into arranging and recording the music, I'm also blown away by the amount of work that Tim Blais put into the visual arrangement of the video. [via reader GH]

If you have more time this weekend, watch League of Denial, currently free online. This is the mind-bogglingly good Frontline documentary about what the NFL knew about brain damage caused by playing football and when they know it. Besides raising great questions about the nature of sports and risk, the characters involved are fascinating -- there was a point when multiple neuroscientists were competing with each other for who got Junior Seau's brain.

Let me put it this way: If the documentary was boring and easily-ignored, the NFL wouldn't have pressured ESPN not to air it.


Work Hard and Ask for More Responsibility: A Conversation with Legendary Producer and Executive David V. Picker

David V. PickerDavid V. Picker is sitting down when I meet him in the lobby of the W Hotel in Westwood. I'm a bit shocked when he stands up. He's a literal giant of the movie industry, not just a metaphorical one. Six-foot-three, although the doctors tell him he may have lost a quarter of an inch with age. That age: 82. But he looks much younger. And when he talks about the movies, he seems younger still. If loving movies this much keeps you young, I'll be a happy man.

Picker's passion for motion pictures started early, possibly decades before his birth, as he recounts in Musts, Maybes and Nevers, his new book about making movies. He was born into a movie dynasty. His grandfather Victor opened a nickelodeon in the Bronx in 1912 -- talk about getting in at the ground floor of an emerging market -- building up a chain of theaters that eventually joined forces with Loews. Picker's father and three uncles all followed into the movie business, and in 1956 David landed at United Artists, working his way up to become head of production and marketing. He was 31.

Many adventures ensued... The Beatles, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Bob Fosse, François Truffaut, Peter Brook, Bernardo Bertolucci and on and on. Musts, Maybes and Nevers, in my humble opinion, should be required reading for every wannabe studio mogul. Not just for the great stories -- more of them below, in Picker's own words -- but for the attitude Picker takes towards working with creative people. He believed his job was to give the filmmakers space to create. On producing Lenny with director Bob Fosse: "My only job was to make it possible for him to do whatever he wanted to do and be sensitive enough to do it the best it could be done. I was there to make sure he could fulfill his needs and also protect him."

Picker's other great lesson for studio bosses: humility. He was once quoted as saying, "If I had turned down every picture I greenlit, and greenlit every picture I turned down, I’d have the same number of hits and flops." I've looked at his list of projects, and I disagree. But I understand the sentiment. Nobody has a crystal ball in the movie business. Not for creative success and certainly not for financial success.

Picker's accent sounds a lot like his friend, Carl Reiner's, but not so brassy. He talks low, so you have to lean in. And you also lean in because you want to hear what he has to say. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview, starting with Picker's advice for young filmmakers who want to break into the business: (more…)


Your Weekend Viewing: Guillermo del Toro remixes the Simpsons opening

Tons of references. Here are a few I spotted...

0:07 The Raven (with three eyes)
0:08 Romero zombie movie
0:25 The Lard Lad Donuts coming to life is like Ghostbusters' Stay-Puft Marshmallow man
0:29 Giant cyclops from Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad
0:33 Hitchcock sitting next to Mrs. Crabapple, who is attacked by birds just like in his film The Birds
0:39 "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" from The Shining. Ed. note: Don't you mean The Shinning? Careful boy, do you want to get us sued?
0:50 Grounskeeper Willy as Hellboy
0:57 Homer turns into Predator
1:02 Carl turns into Blade
1:12 Mr. Burns and Smithers as characters from Pan's Labyrinth
01:31 A quartet of Phantoms of the Opera
01:40 Cthulu from the H.P. Lovecraft stories and the adaptation that del Toro is still trying to get made
1:45 Edgar Allen Poe (2nd from the left)
1:46 Ray Bradbury?
1:55 Universal Horror monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy)
2:09 The Fly?
2:26 Lisa as Alice from Alice in Wonderland (interesting inclusion)
2:36 More references to Pan's Labyrinth

What did you see?

[via The Guardian]


Preston Sturges’ 10 Rules of Comedy

Once the third-highest paid man in America, writer/director Preston Sturges was the king of the box office from 1939 to 1944 with a series of hit comedic films, starting with The Great McGinty and ending with Hail the Conquering Hero. In between two films in this run, Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story, Sturges published a list of rules for commercial success in movies:

1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

2. A leg is better than an arm.

3. A bedroom is better than a living room.

4. An arrival is better than a departure.

5. A birth is better than a death.

6. A chase is better than a chat.

7. A dog is better than a landscape.

8. A kitten is better than a dog.

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything.

-- as quoted in The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study

In the commentary track on the DVD for My Favorite Year, director Richard Benjamin talks about how Sturges' list influenced the film. (more…)


Your Wednesday Links: Digital Distribution Outlet Roundup

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

No Film School has a very nice roundup of some options available to filmmakers for online distribution. - Of course, I plan to integrate this research into Making the Movie's List of Streaming Movie Outlets.

Gnoodle on Imgur: The Composite James Bond - Click through to see the process of adding all the photos.

Rahul Gandotra: Why on Earth Would I Give Away My Academy Award Shortlisted Film For Free? - The eternal debate between having people see your film or making money on it. Easier to solve when you are talking about short films, because they rarely recoup more than $3,000.

The Dissolve: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s vote for funniest movie ever: Top Secret! - This article moved Top Secret! to the top of my list of must-sees. How to Qualify for General Solicitation Fundraising - The so-called 'Kickstarter' Law is about to go into effect. How will it work?

Next time you watch a foreign-language film on disc, try turning off the subtitles. You will see how much is communicated through performance, lighting, composition and editing.


Your Weekend Viewing: A Great Voice

A documentary short about the movie trailer voice over artist Hal Douglas by filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski.

Casimir has also profiled the film critic Andrew Sarris:

That film screened at Telluride Film Fest in 2011 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012. Nozkowski is quite prolific, working on a number of film side projects while making promos for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. If you follow him on Twitter, you'll find some interesting links to experiments on Vine.

You may also know his work from the meme site,, which he co-created. Yep, this is a compilation of people crying while eating.


Creating a Safe Environment: Talking with Writer/Director Destin Cretton of Short Term 12

Short Term 12 posterOne of the best films I've seen all year, Short Term 12, is out in limited release today. The movie tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), head of the line staff at a group home for teens. It's a sort of half-way house for foster kids and other youths caught up in the various government systems, a purgatory between a home with a family and actual adulthood. Grace herself, similar to her charges, is caught between a troubled past and a bright future with her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), an understanding soul who, we learn, is also a product of the system.

The excellent script by Destin Cretton (who also provides the film's sensitive direction), gives each and every character splendidly revealing moments, especially the teen characters, who you so rarely see portrayed with such believability on screen.

The authenticity of the characters' stories is a deliberate product of Cretton's research. He not only interviewed people who work at such homes -- gathering the hilarious true story that opens the film -- but he had personal experience working at a short term facility just out of college.

I got a chance to sit down with Cretton, Larson, Gallagher and some of the rest of the cast to find out how they crafted such a funny, dramatic and moving film in just a brief 20-day shoot. "You packed a lot into those days," says Rami Malek, who plays the new staff member Nate. "We didn't have a minute to spare, really," adds Brie Larson, "It was a 'we make the day, or we don't get the scene' sort of situation. I've been on many independents, and that's something that I'm always aware of, because the producers make you very aware of it. And you feel it. And what's so strange, I think that Short Term had probably the tightest budget of anything I've worked on, and I never ever once felt I was rushed, or told that there was fear that we weren't going to make it. In reaction to that, we were two days ahead of schedule for pretty much the whole shoot. And then we used those two days we were ahead to spend more time on things we felt like needed more time."

John Gallagher, Jr. talked about how Cretton created a caring atmosphere on set. "It all starts with the way he wrote it, the energy he brought to the set and the people he surrounded himself with, from the caterers to the sound guys to Brett [Pawlak], who shot it. He's very careful about who he invites into the family, because he does treat it very much like a family."

"I was very clear to the department heads about a number of things," says Cretton. "One is just being sensitive to the fact that we are telling a story about some pretty heavy issues." Not only did he want the crew to be respectful because there were kids on sets, these were kids that were working themselves into very emotional places. "I didn't even want like 'construction worker talk' of like what went on on the weekend, because I didn't want somebody feeling uncomfortable because of something stupid somebody said." Likewise, it was important the actors be able to come up for air from time to time. "Because we are doing such heavy scenes, it is very important when you come out of those scenes to be able to laugh and joke."

Larson talked about being shaken by a particular scene involving (fake) blood. "That scene, because of my own personal phobia, really shook me up. I left in kind of a weird state and felt really upset when I got home. Asher [Goldstein], one of the producers, actually called me when I got home to make sure I got home safe, because he was concerned about me driving, because I wasn't sort of 'there' after that."

Gallagher praised Cretton's even-keeled demeanor. "He's always there. He's very available. He didn't once lose his cool on set. He was very level, measured, just kinda unflappable. The funny thing is now we're doing these interviews, he was like, 'I don't know if I'm a good director. I don't know what I'm doing.' The whole time I was there, I just thought, man this guy so knows what he's doing. I think that's why the movie has such an ease to it. It all starts with him."

Still-4_KeithStanfield_RamiMalek_KaitlynDever_DestinDanielCretton_BrieLarson_JohnGallagherJrCretton credited his d.p., frequent collaborator Brett Pawlak, as a 'third actor' in a scene, responding and reacting spontaneously to the performances of the actors. Kaitlyn Dever, 16, who plays the troubled, budding artist Jayden, explained: "A lot of the times, the camera would sort of just follow where we were going and that was cool because that was a thing that Destin wanted. If I felt my character would walk and go somewhere in a scene, then the camera would follow.

"It lended to the realism of it," chimes in Keith Stanfield, who is a revelation as Marcus, the taciturn youth who is about to 'age out' of the home, "A lot of people said it looks like a documentary. The level of freedom we were allowed to have, it was pretty much like, 'Just take it and run with it.' I think Destin was looking for really true and raw emotion. He didn't have a predisposition on how people would react to certain things, because emotions are so sporadic. I think he understood that, so he just kind of winged it and let it go. He didn't really contrive it in any way."

"He does things in a very collaborative way," says Gallagher. "It's very organic. He has a very subtle way of laying a lot of the groundwork for you, before you even know it."

There were no rehearsals, but Cretton did give his two leads a little help in forming their characters over a dinner a few nights before the shoot. Larson explains: "Destin dropped an envelope off on John's doorstep before he met me for dinner. And it said to open when we got to the restaurant. So we opened it. It had a sweet little note from Destin, wishing us well and hoping that this helped. And it ended up being another little envelope with little conversation-starters, little pieces of paper with different little questions and things. And any time the conversation would hit a natural lull, we'd just go, 'Let's see what else we have.'

"The questions were great. They were a lot of things I just hadn't really thought about. They were things from, 'What's your happiest childhood memory?' to 'What are your hopes and fears of being a parent?' 'What do you think that Grace and Mason's first date was like?' And those questions then lead us to discuss other things, even things like income. We started doing the math of how much we would make hourly, what kind of hours we were working and what that meant for us financially and living together. It was probably the reason why we lived together was due to financial circumstances. You kind of start piecing this whole mythology together, and by the time the dinner was over, we had a lot figured out."

"I think the best way for humans to be creative is when they feel really safe with each other," says Cretton. "That aesthetic was the result of a practical decision to make all of our choices to try to create the best environment for getting performances out of the actors."

The film is open today in NY and LA. It opens nationwide August 30.