The story of getting a film made ........again!

Give them what they want!

Getting_Ready_sm

Imagine this. You’re in the market for a new car, so you take yourself off to the nearest sparkling glass and steel showroom to kick some tyres. You resist the temptation to don your shades, such is the blinding brilliant gleam from the array of choice motors. But wait, what’s this. There’s a guy in corner, behind a counter selling bicycles. Curious, you amble over. The conversation might go something like this.

You

Hi….what’s the deal. Buy a car and get a free bike?

 Bicycle Seller

No, they’re for sale.

You

Really….but that’s ….why are you selling bikes in a car show room?

Bicycle Seller

Well, I figure people are here to purchase a form of transport and that’s what I have to sell. Bikes.

You

Yes but,….there’s no one coming in here to buy a bike. Wouldn’t you be much better off setting up a shop in town or selling directly online or both.

Bicycle Seller

I don’t think so. As a form of transport the bike predates the motor car. It’s good for your heart and good for the environment. I think people should be happy to support that.

You take a closer look at a price tag.

You

Yikes, this can’t be right, twelve grand for a bike.

Bicycle Seller

No it’s right alright.

You

How in hell can a bike cost that much.

Bicycle Seller

That was a condition of selling in here. We had to charge no less than the cheapest car.

You

But you’ll never sell a bike for twelve grand.

Bicycle Seller

Well I haven’t so far that’s for sure.

You

Although, you’re probably looking at 95% profit, so if you do make a sale I suppose it’s happy days.

Bicycle Seller

Well, not quite. Fifty percent goes to the showroom and another 25% to the distributor after he’s deducted his costs. So I could be maybe looking at 5% of sale price for myself, if I’m lucky.

You

You do realise this is an insane business model, right?

Bicycle Seller

Well, it’s no more insane than say…independent Irish films in cinemas ……..I suppose.

You

Check out last Sunday’s Times. They’re not making money either.

Some moments of silence.

You

I’m gonna go …….buy a car.

Last Sunday, the Times ran a piece called “Cinemas shout cut on Irish films”. It told us that cinemas make commercially minded decisions based on the performance of films and if that’s deemed to be poor, the film is pulled in favour of something else. The IFI, our most prominent art house cinema has now decided to follow suit having up to now block booked films which stayed screening for the duration, no matter how they performed. I guess they’ve got to make money too.

I applaud Joe Lawlor for having his up and coming film release mentioned a number of times in the piece, I would suggest though that if he had managed to spend more time telling us about his new film rather than bemoaning the harsh realities films have to deal with on release, it might have been time well spent. I know when you give an interview, you have no control over how much of what you say goes into print. But the part that really jumped out at me was this. “he did not blame cinema staff for making commercial decisions, (good move Joe as you will pretty soon be at the mercy of the Monday morning meeting) and that audiences had to take some responsibility for the relatively poor performance of domestic movies of late.”

Now I know we’re getting used to the blame game arriving at all our doors. Since 2008 we’ve had a parade of government ministers, European autocrats and banksters telling us all we are to blame for our economy crashing. Before them the Catholic Church had made an art form of trading in guilt until we discovered they were a cabal of hypocrits. But in addition to all that, it would now appear that it’s my fault and your fault that Irish films are getting the boot before taking its coat off.

Imagine this conversation.

Fiona

Let’s go see a movie tonight.

William

Sure, …anything in mind?

Fiona

I’ve heard good things about “The Way Way Back” or maybe “About Time” with Domhnall Gleeson?

William furrows his brow.

Fiona

Or maybe something a little less girly?

William

We haven’t seen an Irish film for some weeks now.

Fiona

Must we …….OK what’s on?

William

There’s something playing in Dundrum, can’t remember what it’s called.

Fiona

Then maybe it’s not worth seeing?

William

That’s not the point Fiona. We have to accept some responsibility for the poor performance of Irish films. If we don’t go to see them, well, we’ve only ourselves to blame when they disappear off our screens.

Fiona

And your point is?

 

Kevin Spacey, an actor and producer from the heart of the Hollywood system gets it. Netflix gets it. Give them what they want, where they want it and how they want it. Like it or not, when you make a film, you’re in business. I’ve seen countless shops open and close again in quick succession in these unforgiving times. I have yet to hear one entrepreneur complain that the people on the street are to blame for a closure. If they had come in and spent money, I’d still be open. That would be just too ridiculous. Fact is, if they don’t want your film, no end of pseudo-guilt trips is going to change that.

I hope Mr. Lawlor’s film does really well, as I do all Irish films. But if it doesn’t, then maybe we’re selling bicycles in car showrooms. There’s a whole new world of marketing and release opportunities out there and they are yielding credible results for those who get it. Have a listen to Mr. Spacey, he gets it.

Monster lessons!

Monsters PosterI am always captivated by the success of micro budget films, particularly when they’re feature débuts and the latest in that pantheon is Gareth Edward‘s Monsters. It comes in at an unbelievable $15,000, however when you watch the Blu-Ray extras, you realise that Edwards wrote, directed, DOP’d and created all 250 FX shots (with no green screen or tracking points). In a bid to launch a career, I’m pretty sure these jobs represented a zero value on the films budget.

Monsters has done what it was designed to do, make money for the producers and launch a VFX specialist as a sought after director, while at the same time entertaining it’s audience. The film is not really an original concept, nor is it a memorable story, but perhaps its greatest achievement is throwing into stark relief the bloated hollywood FX/Star driven vacuous extravaganzas that have come to dominate our cineplexs. Yet another assault on a dying dogma that believes, if you throw enough money at a films production and marketing, at least one will make enough dosh to cover the loses of the many. However, recent box office figures suggest the audience has had enough and are turning up in depleted numbers. But isn’t Monsters just one such film made for a pittance? Well not really, but even if it were, its price tag somehow makes that OK.

What’s truly remarkable about Monsters is that it came together at all. Shooting began with nothing more than an outline. The crew was made up of Edwards, a sound recordist, line producer and editor. The cast consisted of two actors and small parts were recruited locally, many of which couldn’t speak English. But what makes this film really work are the two lead actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. Two talented actors who were familiar with each other before Monsters and considering so much improv and ad lib was called for, this was a major plus.

Ireland is a country where we can afford to make nothing but low budget movies and in reality, those budgets are wildly extravagant compared to Edward’s debut feature. So at the end of the day, it really does come down to talent. Being able to recognise it, resource it and applaud it.

I was recently awarded a First draft loan by the Irish Film Board for a feature project called Miles To Go. I will be blogging soon about the progress of that project.

 

The King’s Speech – A triumph of filmmaking

The King's SpeechTake a man and give him a seemingly insurmountable problem, pile on the pressure until finally he stands victorious and you have the the baseline of many films too numerous to mention. Film heroes from James Bond to Indiana Jones to Rocky have all trodden a similar path – and yet “The King’s Speech” is a triumph and well deserving of all its plaudits, not least the 12 Oscar nominations for this reason. It is different in so many other ways. And what is breathtakingly refreshing about this movie is it doesn’t try to assault the senses, on the contrary, like a fine wine, it’s allowed to breath and envelope you in its consummate craftsmanship.

The story it tells is a factual one about the ascent of King George VI (Colin Firth) to the English throne on the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon) and the abdication of his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) who wishes to marry an American divorcee Wallace Simpson. The film opens as Bertie (King George VI to be) attempts to make a speech to a crowd in Wembley Stadium at the Empire Exhibition of 1925 and is defeated by his crippling stammer. His loving and loyal wife the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) feels her husband’s pain and tries to make eye contact with him to infuse him with her support. Believing someone somewhere has the knowledge to help the Prince, she finally meets Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a self styled Australian speech therapist who honed his craft at the coal face of shell shocked WW1 vets, but as he admits himself, possesses no doctorate or letters after his name. An uneasy trust builds between these two unlikeliest of friends, royal and commoner as the events of history unfold and Lionel tries to get Bertie to recognise that the root of his problem is fear of his father and his brother. This angers Bertie when Lionel pushes his point that he would make an excellent King should his brother abdicate and a short break in their friendship follows. But as his coronation approaches Bertie concedes and seeks Lionel’s help once again. I love the moment when Lionel’s wife comes into her sitting room and finds there the Queen of England helping herself to a cup of tea and in walks the King leaving her completely speechless.

It’s a simple tale about a revered monarch beset by a crippling stammer. The worse thing about a speech impediment is that it lays bare to the world that which we all work hard to conceal and to a large extent succeed and that is our fear. Worse still is the apparently universal fear of public speaking. There’s a very touching moment when the King’s wife finds him trying to come to grips with his new enormous responsibilities as King as he pours over state documents. He breaks down under this weight and is comforted by his wife who reveals that she turned down his proposal of marriage twice, not because she didn’t love him, but rather she didn’t relish the life of a royal. But she tells Bertie he has such a beautiful stammer and had hoped they would be left alone because of it. The film is peppered with beautiful, quiet and personal moments between the King and Lionel also. When the monarch tells him he doesn’t know how to thank him for his help, Lionel prompts “a knighthood” with a mischievous grin.

But war with Hitler’s Germany brings this film to it’s conclusion as Britain declares war and the King makes his speech to his subjects over radio, recognising the horrors and loss that awaits them. This is a speech where he is determined to sound resolute and yet empathetic to the people. And once again, with the coaching of Lionel in a private booth, he rises to the occassion and infuses his listeners with courage and hope to see them through the coming trial. What is touching to see is that, powerful and wealthy though the King of England may be, nonetheless he draws strength and inspiration from the same well we all do, family and close friends. Quite simply filmmaking in its purest form, fine script, great performances and impeccable direction.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Having bought a DVD a couple of weeks back on a recommendation, I finally got a chance to watch it. It’s a French film called “The Beat that my Heart Skipped” directed by Jacques Audiard and released in 2005 (so this is not a review). It tells the story of a young man Tom (Romain Duris), who involves himself in the dark end of the property business, wrecking apartments so that homeless people wont find refuge for free and releasing a bag of rats on a family to force them to quit, not to mention employing extreme violence when neccessary. His own father Robert (Niels Arestrup) is a veteran of this shady business and calls on his son as enforcer. But Tom has a love of music and it turns out was quite a good pianist, or at least that’s the opinion of his late mother’s friend who was manager to her concert pianist career. Upon a chance encounter, the manager tells Tom to schedule an audition as he believes Tom possess’ real potential. Tom seeks out a tutor in the form of Miao-Lin (Linh Dan Pham), who painstakingly polishes Tom’s innate abilities. Finally reaching a point at which they are both happy, Tom auditions and fluffs the opportunity because the darker side of his life encroached on his rest the previous night. Tom’s inner conflict increases when he begins an affair with Aline (Aure Atika), his friend Fabrice’s wife, who has discovered that Tom covers for her husband when he meets other women for sex. At the same time Tom’s father becomes entangled with a sinister Russian Minskov (Anton Yakovlev) and is murdered in his apartment. We jump forward two years and find that Tom is now Miao-Lin’s manager and quite possibly her lover. On his way to her concert, he encounters Minskov and attacks him in a stairwell, stopping short at blowing his brains out with his own gun. Tom cleans himself up as best he can in the toilets and takes his seat in the auditorium to listen to Miao-Lin play the piano.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it brought to mind the age old debate of character driven stories versus plot driven. Two Irish films which excelled in this area were “Garage” and further back “Adam and Paul” both directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Mark O’Halloran. I’ve often heard it said “why does a good film have to be exclusive of one or the other”, and I suppose the answer is they don’t have to be. It’s a big risk to dispense with plot, but very often a risk worth taking because when you do, you are afforded the opportunity to lay bare the honest minutia of life, that is very often missed in the need to advance the plot. Although character driven stories are for the most part associated with European film, Hollywood is quite accomplished in this area as well. Two recent examples are “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke and “Crazy Heart” with Jeff Bridges.

These stories depend heavily on two things, a visceral honesty not only in the script but also the portrayal of the characters and a top class performance. Get these two wrong and you have nothing to fall back on in your film. Get them right and you have a film which will stand the test of time.

Although it’s legitimate to express a personal preference when it comes to character as opposed to plot driven films (and personally I enjoy both) it’s equally important to accept that both forms of film are valid and simply form part of the vast variety of film types around the world. Very often one encounters an elitist, high brow dismissive attitude to plot driven stories. This serves no one – producers or audience and quiet honestly, is more damaging to the form they believe they hold in esteem. It’s a little bit like, I would be more Green if it weren’t for the Greens.

Bertie, Biffo and the Bard of Avon

Hailed as a strong and decisive leader on his appointment to the top job, Brian Cowen has managed to confound both his supporters and critics in equal measure. Among the many questions we are left asking after two years of his stewardship, surely the most pertinent is “What was Bertie thinking by positioning his finance minister for Taoiseach?” As always with Bertie, I believe he knew exactly what he was doing. The former Taoiseach is nothing, if not ruthlessly ambitious. By the time he knew his days were numbered, he very quickly set out his path to the big white house in the park and knew that he would have to seal the door shut behind him in Government buildings to ensure that no blame or criticism followed him on his quest for the Presidency. Brian Cowen held many cabinet positions and managed to distinguish himself in none. Seeing the ominous dark clouds on our horizon a lot sooner than we think, why did Bertie choose a successor who quite clearly would not be up to the task ahead.

In Fianna Fail, loyalty above all else is expected, treasured and rewarded and if nothing else Brian Cowen possessed it in bucket loads. If a leadership contest were to take place in the wake of Bertie’s departure, God forbid, a young turk could have risen to the top, a la Obama, who owed nothing to Bertie and while he or she struggled to steer our ship through very dark waters, would be always free to point the finger at Bertie and Biffo et al and say, “Look, I’m really sorry about this mess, but they caused it, I’m only trying to fix it. Give me a hand and we’ll get through this”. That possibility could never be countenanced, not matter how improbable. So quite apart from all the actions and inactions perpetrated on us by the affable Bertie, (Ah Jaysus lads), it is my belief that Biffo’s elevation at his hand, if not the most damaging of them all, was at least the final blow.

So what’s William Shakespeare got to do with all of this? Quite rightly we hold the man in high esteem for his uncanny ability to reveal the human heart in all it’s manifestations and gory detail. Of all of his fine plays, one of his lesser known is “Coriolanus”. It tells the story of a brave and loyal army General and servant of Rome, who because of his heroic exploits on the field of battle, finds himself persauded to run for the Roman Senate. For the first time in his life, he must converse with and seek the support of the common people or plebeian in order to secure his seat and finds it impossible to hide his contempt for them. Going so far as to insult and threaten them, Coriolanus finds himself, through the machinations of some cunning and manipulative politicians, cast out of Rome. The story goes on from there, but for our purposes we can stop here. Coriolanus was revered by his men as a warrior who feared nobody and so they gave of their affection and loyalty, without question. His flaw was that he was true to himself. He held in high esteem those who shed blood for him and Rome and felt nothing short of indifference, even contempt for the soft yet complaining citizens of that same city. And if he is to be admired, it is for his unwillingness to pretend to be someone he was not. Anyone else see the parallel?

So is Brian Cowen a bad man? No, not at all. By all accounts he is affable and witty, kind to animals and children, a strong family man with decent human values. He just found himself at the wrong end of the machinations of the most cunning and ruthless of them all.

What’s this got to do with a blog about film. Not a lot I will admit and I did point out that other subject matter would sneak in every now and then. Except this, I am working on an adaptation of Coriolanus for film. Yes I know, Ralph Fiennes has has just completed his adaptation. While I haven’t seen it yet, I have no doubt it’s a very fine film. The adaptation I have in mind would have a very different take on the subject matter and no, it’s not Biffo the movie.

New short film: Bitches Coven

Shot in a day on a budget of a grand, “Bitches Coven” is a film inspired by the night our country was enslaved and shackled to the service of the banks and I began to wonder exactly what goes on behind closed doors when the powerful and elite gather. Call me a conspiracy theorist and you could be right – it was a lot of fun to do, let me know what you think. They may take our money, but they will never take our FREEEDOMM!!!! A very big thanks to all involved.

It was also important to do something which could form the basis of a long form project such as a feature or TV drama: “The Further Adventures of Emily Stark”

Readers reports

If you’ve been involved in screen writing in Ireland, then no doubt you will have interacted with the film board and if that’s true then you may well have found yourself at the sharp end of a reader’s report. I came across this little piece of wisdom and, it speaks for itself.

READING A SCRIPT

“Before attempting to evaluate a work of drama, before even starting to read it, the reader must bear in mind three basic points.

1. Firstly a screenplay is not an administrative document but a venerable artifact that needs to be handled sensitively. It is the fruit of an artist’s labour, one in which he has invested a part of his soul. This is true even in cases where the resulting work appears terrible. A text and its writer should be approached with the greatest respect.

2. Secondly, a text should be regarded as a work in progress whose potential needs only to be unlocked for it to flourish. A work of drama is too often read as if it were the finished product, incapable of improvement before going into production. This is indeed the case with the classical theatre, but it is not so with a newly written drama. The reader must look for the possibility of  hidden treasures in the text. Remember that to write is to to rewrite and that a writer can often hone his skills on his own handiwork. Let’s not forget the first draft of “Some Like it Hot” was a mess.

3. Thirdly, and this is an extremely important point, we cannot compare a script (and even less so a pitch or a synopsis) with a finished work. At one of my workshops one day a participant pitched an idea, an outline that came to a few lines. Another participant, a producer-director said the idea reminded him of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and added that he preferred the latter! This is hardly surprising – the movie came with added sound, images and actors playing out the roles, not to mention the fact that in all likelihood the screenplay was worked and reworked before finally going into production, with further final touches being made during the shooting and the editing or mixing process.

The reader’s report must think seriously about the things in the text that make it work and are likely to please. As in business and marketing, it is best to start with the benefits before going onto the concerns.As I have noted earlier, it is too easy to criticise others. Writers urgently need to know what people like about their work. This has less to do with sensitive egos than with motivation. Where critical comment can point out ways a text can be improved by rewriting, positive comment can provide the drive to rewrite.If a reader really cannot find something positive to say, it may be that he needs to try a little harder. It is sometimes the case that the reader is a writer manque and that he is unconciously prone to twinges of frustration, jealousy and even bitterness. When he was a producer, Frantisek Daniel had an unusual way of reducing the chances that personal motivation might affect his reader’s judgement of other people’s work: he paid more for reader’s reports that were positive.

There is another tendency that reader’s must resist at all costs, and that is the assumption that, if they like a text, it must be “good”, whereas if they do not like it, it is necessarily “bad”. Pascal famously wrote that “egoism is hateful” – a warning against narcissism and self regard. He did not say that “speaking of oneself is hateful“. On the contrary, to speak of oneself and not to take one’s personal view for universal truths is to display humility. Who are we as readers, to decree that such and such a project is worthless and that the writer should look for other ways of earning a living? Hailing someone immoderately as a genius is not terribly helpful to a writer either, though it does at least send out a positive signal (while raising standards to intimidatory levels). By contrast, demolishing a writer’s work can be extremely damaging to the writer”.

Excerpts from Yves Lavandier’s WRITING DRAMA