Making the Movie


Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Yes, The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, is much like his earlier film Goodfellas -- except with a financial industry backdrop instead of the mob. According to Leonardo DiCaprio, the star and producer, Goodfellas was the express template used by screenwriter Terrence Winter. "The script was tailor-made for Marty." What differentiates Wolf is not so much the plot or the film techniques but the tone: satiric and absurd instead of nostalgic.

Funny movies don't win many Oscars, which is too bad for Wolf, because it is hilarious. A scene where DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort has a delayed reaction to some quaaludes, for example, allows one of our great matinee idols to inch along the ground like a demented earthworm. Most scenes clearly incorporate improvisation -- the dialogue has an Apatovian feel. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly uses single-shot cutaways as punchlines in the manner of 30 Rock.

DiCaprio had initially set up this true tale of the rise and fall of a fast-talking stockbroker around the 2008 financial crisis. Scorsese delayed several years until Red Granite Pictures came on board, promising full creative freedom. The delay is not a problem; the film still feels fresh and relevant.

Nevermind that the movie was quickly trimmed from four hours to three -- Schoonmaker said they did not have to lop off any scenes whole, likening that to losing a limb, and she says that Marty fully supports this cut. The whole movie, long as it is, has a rushed, hyperkinetic pace anyway.

What I want to know is how -- with drug use and/or sex in nearly every scene -- did this film pass the MPAA? Truly this is where the creative freedom was spent: there hasn't been a film this open-eyed about sex and drugs since the 1970's.

It's hard to know where to rank this in the Scorsese cannon. On one hand, it feels derivative of Goodfellas and The Aviator. On the other hand, most directors work in a single style their whole careers. Can we blame the chameleonic Scorsese if he spoofs himself this time out, instead of homaging other filmmakers, as he normally does?

Deep down, I suspect this is DiCaprio's movie, much in the same way Raging Bull was a passion project for DeNiro. I normally find Leo Dio hard to believe except in very particular roles, and this is one of those roles. His brashness and mischievousness work toward the performance, rather than against it. Scorsese has praised DiCaprio's utter fearlessness and here we get to see that put to use for comedy, going absolutely-balls-to-the-wall, embracing the selfish, self-destructive side of humanity. Whatever its merits as a work of art, it's a 100% entertaining film. No small feat, and something I hope the Academy recognizes.


Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is film about grief. It's a movie about suicide in which the suicide happens off-screen, before the film even begins. It's a circular tale, but not like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. It is more like James Joyce's Ulysses, which is like Homer's Odyssey, which is like the Coen Brothers' earlier collaboration with music producer T. Bone Burnett, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But if it is like another Coen brothers movie, it is most like the Talmudic parable that is A Serious Man. And it may also be, as The Dissolve's Matt Singer suggests, about how bleak life would be if the Coens didn't have each other.

All this can be easily forgotten as one bathes in the mood and atmosphere of the 60's folk scene. Llewyn, in the form of actor Oscar Isaac, seems fully-formed as a real person, perhaps because he is based on a real self-sabotaging folk singer who once served in the merchant marine. Meanwhile, he's surrounded by the Felliniesque character faces we've come to know and love from the Coens. The old couple who manage Davis and John Goodman's voodoo jazz daddy are two highlights of a teeming, Simpsonian world.

For those who enjoy their ironies exquisite, I can hardly think of a finer film. I have little else to say, except a small note about the metaphorical cat that got away -- spoilers...



A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 2

More thoughts on the present state of movie distribution from USC film student Paul Snow. For Part 1, go here. -JO

Other formats and what they can teach us

You’ve probably heard about the current Golden Age of Television. Yes, much of the success of daring shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones owes to lower budgets and more open-minded executives than the current movie studios, but television has always had a key advantage over movies: addiction. TV sits in your house to use whenever you want, and you can sample as much or as little of any program available without the psychological pain of putting up money for each individual viewing, as in a theatrical setting. Movies are unable to immerse viewers in the same way and for the same stretch of time as TV.

This sampling means that, instead of relying on marketing to determine whether a show is appealing, people can watch a bite-sized piece of content for themselves, and, as the actual content disseminates through the market, word-of-mouth builds and the higher-quality shows often win out. Once a viewer is locked in through these social and economic forces, they are committed to watching hours of content, allowing for revenue from advertising, VOD, and home video sales to reach the producers. Presumably, if everyone were able to sample the quality of a movie like Planes and the true fans of the film then all committed — in advance — to purchasing the entire associated toy line, the movie studios would behave quite differently.

But why do viewers get locked in, especially in episodic drama? (more…)


Your Wednesday Links: The Sex Scene Double-Standard

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

Script Shadow: Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter

Library of Congress: Only 14% of U.S. Silent Films Survive - These are amazing historical documents, if not artistic masterpieces. Kudos to the people working to save them.

Movie Morlocks: Accentuate the Accent... or Don’t - I'm one of these people who is driven crazy by dodgy and illogical accents. I like to think I can put that aside and enjoy films on their other merits. I haven't seen the two films discussed here.

"...while just 13% of producers who produced a low budget film go on to make another one." - Filmmaker Magazine takes a look at the stats of independent filmmaking.

Movie franchise meter - Nice chart of the critical reception of franchises over time.

Gif compilation: Background actors who have no idea what they are doing

Screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the Times Literary Supplement: Nazism was a triumph not so much of the will as of modern sales techniques, especially film...

IndieWire: Evan Rachel Wood Calls Out the MPAA for Sex Scene Double Standards on Deleted 'Charlie Countryman' Scene

FilmDrunk: Spike Lee Was Spectactularly Unhelpful to Oldboy’s Allegedly Plagiarized Poster Artist - It is hard to know if Spike really didn't understand how this would look or is just using one of his brilliant marketing techniques.


A Newcomer’s Take on Motion Picture Distribution, Part 1

The first part of a two-part essay from USC film student Paul Snow. Enjoy. - JO

* * *

Cars toysHollywood isn’t in the movie business anymore

Much has been written over the last year about the questionable stability of the blockbuster, but the fact is that even if event movies run losses on a regular basis the studios will continue to make them because they aren’t just movie studios, but divisions of massive media conglomerates. Regardless of how successful Captain America is as a film, it establishes revenue streams in video games, comics, toys, and other branding deals that will more than pay for the production cost. The Walt Disney Company has famously made more money from Cars merchandise than on all of Pixar’s films combined. After such a success, films like Cars 2 and Planes seem to exist for no other reason than to perpetuate the toy line. The blockbuster is necessary, but rarely an end in itself.

Even when Hollywood tries to sell a movie by itself the old-fashioned way, a close look reveals that it is really only selling tickets. After you buy your ticket at the box office, Hollywood’s responsibility to you ends. Studio marketing clearly demonstrates this.

Marketing and audience satisfaction

Because Hollywood sells tickets and merchandise rather than movies, its marketing focuses on putting butts in seats, rather than planting the seeds for good word-of-mouth by preparing the audience to be satisfied by the film itself. As a result, the trailers today are filled with money shots – to the point where the recent trailer for Ender’s Game shows the climax of the movie (which anyone who knows about the story beforehand will be able to identify).

Instead of having the marketing team work creatively to show the unique merits of each picture, movies today are made to conform to the marketing and to play well in one of the two templates for a studio trailer: exciting or lighthearted. When a film defies easy categorization, the marketing group tends to misrepresent it in some inappropriate genre, setting the public up for disappointment and confusion when they go to see it. Blade Runner, Fight Club, and Where the Wild Things Are – sold as a shoot-em-up, a wrestling movie, and a family-friendly kid’s movie, respectively – were all famous financial disappointments for this key reason.

I see indie filmmakers falling into traps too. The biggest pitfall today in independent cinema is belief in the fantasy that the festival circuit and crowdfunding are reliable paths to success and financial rewards. In reality, these are only different forms of marketing for the film. Still, filmmakers get enchanted about stories of a time gone by when big producers scanned the festivals all day for new talent. Today, most of them prefer to keep a tab open on Twitter or YouTube – if they want to seek out anyone at all. Only 1% of movies submitted to Sundance are accepted, and 4% or 5% of those (about 5 feature films films out of 120 on average in the last 3 years) receive any kind of theatrical distribution deal. To most filmmakers, festivals are at best a publicity opportunity.

Similarly, thousands of filmmakers run crowdfunding campaigns with the hope of six-figure paydays like the biggest success stories publicized online. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” will tell you, however, to prepare to work full-time for at least a month on a campaign and to set a modest goal. (SideKick reports that the average successful campaign for “Narrative Film” on Kickstarter collects less than $40K.) Understand that a significant portion of that goal will be spent just on the rewards given to donors rather than the film itself. At best, crowdfunding can provide long-term audience engagement and perhaps a set of small additional funding for a major independent project.

If studio filmmakers only care about getting the audience into the theater and independents are willing to place the labor of several years of their lives completely on chance and festival tastes, then these methods are fine. There will always be a balance between art and commerce, but nobody needs to shoot themselves in the foot. So where do we go from here?

My thoughts on distribution with continue in Part 2.


Book Review: The Film Scripts Series, Volumes 1-4

I'm someone who firmly believes screenplays should be treated as literature. For a guy like me, I this Film Scripts Series from Applause Books is dead on the money. Great scripts, great writers, published as shooting scripts with formatting correctly preserved -- unlike so many screenplay books out there, with their tiny pages and non-monospace fonts. Ick! Those who have studied screenwriting know the trouble that writers go to have their story flow visually on the page and how essential it is to see the original formatting.

An update of the 1971 series edited by George P. Garrett and O.B. Hardison, Jr., this re-issue, under the editorship of Jane R. Gelfman, offers three classic scripts in each volume. Each volume also contains an identical introduction which covers film history and the screenwriting process, an appendix with pages from a shooting schedule and a glossary of terms, making any of them appropriate as textbooks.

A minor quibble: this series does omit the original page numbers. While they could be back-calculated, other screenplay collections, like the excellent Preston Sturges compilations, do keep the page numbers.

But any quibbles are minor considering the caliber of scripts represented in this series; classic screenplays faithfully published are quite difficult to find. That makes these volumes well-worth adding to the gift list for any aspiring screenwriter or film history buff. I applaud Applause for doing right by some great material.



Ranking the films of David Mamet: An Annotated Filmography

Screenwriter and director David MametDavid Mamet has distinguished himself as a playwright, screenwriter, director and cultural essayist for nearly four decades now. I've always loved his well-crafted screenwriting, and over time I've also come to appreciate his unadorned style as a director. Because he believes actors should "say the words" without "inflection," he's a bit of an acquired taste, I'll admit. But well worth the trouble.

Where should the Mamet novice begin? Which films will endure? What follows is my own personal ranking of what will A (Always) B (Be) C (Classics) of D (David) Mamet...

The 1980's

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Mamet's role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by James M. Cain)
Mamet tropes: A false confession, faithless spouses
John's Rank: #22

Premise: A drifter (Jack Nicholson) falls in lust with a waitress at a roadside diner (Jessica Lange) and they plot to murder her husband. Adapted from the classic noir novel by James M. Cain, it is widely considered to be inferior to the 1946 film version starring James Garfield. Mamet's then-wife Lindsay Crouse was trying out for a role and Mamet encouraged her to mention to director Bob Rafelson that Mamet was a fan of the novel. Rafelson and Nicholson had been attempting themselves to adapt it, unsuccessfully, and jumped at the chance to work with Mamet, by then an established playwright.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Not having read the original novel or seen the 1946 Garfield version, it is hard for me to judge Mamet's work here. Certainly the script and the directing by Bob Rafelson create an environment for some excellent and sexy performances. I do know that the novel continues the story for an additional trial at the end. I'm not sure if it was Mamet or, more likely Rafelson, who decided to leave off the book's ending. (Rafelson loves ambiguous endings.) But the movie feels incomplete. It also has an intrusive score. Worth watching for the performances and for the cinematography by Swedish master Sven Nykvist, but overall... unsatisfying.

The Verdict (1982)
Mamet's role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by Barry Reed, a draft by Jay Presson Allen was apparently not used)
Mamet tropes: Noble lawyers, one-sided phone conversations, political incorrectness, nepotistic casting
John's Rank: #2

Premise: Alcoholic, washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) lands a medical malpractice case that offers him a final shot at redemption.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet's first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Verdict is a deliberate (I won't say slow) character study and legal drama. The script is as fantastic as is reputed -- every moment is building character or moving the plot forward, with huge emotional payoffs. The story is greatly assisted by director Sidney Lumet, d.p. Andrzej Bartkowiak, and the performances of the actors, most notably Paul Newman, who imbues the character of Frank Galvin with real flaws and real hope.  This movie was well-acclaimed upon release, but I get the sense that it is not seen or discussed much of late. That's a shame. This might be the best courtroom drama ever put on film.

Look for: Mamet's first wife Lindsay Crouse in a small-but-crucial role.

The Untouchables (1987)
Mamet's role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Eloquent criminals, knife-based plot points, children in peril
John's Rank: #4

Premise: Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) forms a group of "untouchable" cops (Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith) to pursue the unofficial mayor of Prohibition Era Chicago, the gangster Al Capone (Robert DeNiro).

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet's first major screen script after winning a Pulitzer for the stageplay Glengarry Glen Ross, Untouchables is a classic script and a classic movie. I'm sure it's the reason Mamet ended up writing a number of other gangster movies for Hollywood. Scene after scene is a textbook of Mamet dialogue and mis-direction. Watching it again recently, not having seen it for probably 15 years, the famous (and largely dialogue-free) scene involving a baby buggy on a staircase seems a bit over-wrought under Brian De Palma's direction, but the rest of the movie holds up better than I had remembered -- largely due to Mamet's tight and action-packed script. "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way." A definite favorite.

House of Games (1987)
Mamet's role: Screenwriter (and co-story credit with Jonathan Katz), Director
Mamet tropes: Long cons, close-up magic, knife-based plot points, switched briefcases, metaphorical games of chance, eloquent criminals, nepotistic casting
John's Rank: #6

Premise: David Mamet's directorial debut finds eminent psychologist Dr. Margaret Ford (Mamet's then-wife Lindsay Crouse) drawn into the world of a gang of confidence men (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum and more). Are they offering her the thrill her life needs, or is she just a pawn in one of their elaborate schemes?

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: People think of Mamet as a macho director, but this is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. I liked this movie okay when I first saw it, but was a bit turned off by the ending. Watching it again, I see that Mamet and frequent d.p. Juan Ruiz Anchia have layered in a ton of Freudian imagery and provided some distinct clues for why Crouse's character behaves how she does. Crouse, following Mamet's direction, chose to play the character very close to the vest, which makes her more interesting to watch when you see the film a second time. But you don't need to watch this film more than once to enjoy Joe Mantegna who, as the "honest" confidence man Mike Mancuso, steals the show.



Your Further Weekend Viewing: Stop Motion of Graffiti Artists Taking over Warehouse

I'm a sucker for watching large construction or painting projects come together in timelapse, so I loved this video. The filmmaker Selina Miles also makes use of some nice motion control and stop motion animation techniques as well.

There's another film along similar lines on the YouTube channel. It looks like a dry run for the above:

I can't find any information online about how long these took to film and compile/edit. You could probably make an educated guess by watching the rise and fall of the natural light sources, or if you knew how long it would take to paint such complex, large-scale tags.


Your Weekend Viewing: Aningaaq, A Side-quel to Gravity

Co-writer of Gravity, Jonas Cuarón, directed a short in Greenland that shows the other side of Sandra Bullock's character's distress call. If it gets nominated for an Academy Award for Live-Action Short, it could mark the first time both a film and a spinoff short are nominated together, according to the Hollywood Reporter. You may recall that "Hotel Chevalier" and The Darjeeling Limited formed a similar movie/short pair, though neither managed to get nominated.

The reported budget for the shoot was $100,000 and drew upon both Cuarons' love for the desolate landscape of Greenland. Jonas apparently learned of the inhabitants' attachment to their sled dogs and incorporated that into the plot.


Wednesday Links: Eat Your Heart Out, David Fincher

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter. Rare Home Movies Show Charlie Chaplin Directing a Scene That Took a Staggering 342 Takes to Get Right - "Eat your heart out, David Fincher." Why Do Movie Studios Keep Churning Out Dumb Character Posters?

Filmmaker IQ: Create Light Smears and Leaks with a Sandwich bag

Richard Brody for The New Yorker: The problem with sex scenes that are too good

Digital Films: A guide to the stages of film editing

SSN Insight: ‘The Best Man Holiday’ & the ROI of African-American Comedies

IndieWire: Who Really Created The 'Inception' BRAAAM? Composer Mike Zarin Sets The Record Straight

Message to Studios & Retailers: Content Exclusives Have Gotten Out of Hand - Home video guru Bill Hunt is right about this. In general, many of these marketing gambits are short-sighted. The studios would have better building a long-term reputation for fan service.

EOSHD: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera gets raw!

Slate tics off the homages in Wes Anderson's new short film / Prada ad - And here's the link to the corrected version of the short. Speaking of Wes Anderson...

Alex Buono | HOW WE DID IT: SNL – “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” - See also... Making the Gravity Trailer Parody Alfonso Cuarón’s “IKEA”

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