Thursday, October 23, 2014

My tribute to WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE on Film School Rejects

I know that the internet of late has devoted an excessive amount of time to '90s nostalgia. This year especially has been a deluge of 20-year retrospective pieces, as it turns out that 1994 was a pretty big year for pop culture. And yet, as tired as I am of such things, I joined the ranks of the guilty this week with a piece I wrote for Film School Rejects.

It has been twenty years since the release of my favorite sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, the very meta Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It's always felt to me like a very clever movie that was under-appreciated in its time and any notoriety is has in retrospect seems to be as a footnote to Scream, which followed two years later. I gather that "real" horror fans hate how it takes place in the "real world" makes Freddy of the previous six films just a character in a movie. The movie's uniqueness repells some, but for me, that's why it's worthy of being celebrated.

I'm grateful that Film School Rejects gave me a forum in which to express that.

“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” – Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. 

In a film full of truthful observations, that line always struck me as the truest, or at least the most relevant to my own relationship with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street film series. I was four when the original came out in 1984, so I was too young to experience that film or most of the first few sequels on their first release. As I grew up, my awareness of Freddy came from what seeped into popular culture. As best as I can remember, my introduction was either a kid in my 4th grade class wearing a Freddy mask for Halloween, or possibly an ad for the costume in a comic book. 

So “my” Freddy was less the disturbing child murderer whom Wes Craven created for what probably felt like a standalone film, and more the watered-down pop icon. Less a psychological threat, and more of a catchphrase-spewing gimmick killer. It’s the difference between how the shark from Jaws plays on screen, and experiencing him on the Universal Studios tram tour. 

As a result, Freddy never scared me as a kid, nor did I have any desire to see the movies. I knew that they came out every year or two and I assumed all of the movies were stupid slasher films, in which, I saw no appeal. I remember seeing a trailer for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991 and thinking it looked incredibly awful. Good riddance. 

Then came 1994 and the release of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Read the rest over at Film School Rejects.

Monday, October 20, 2014

BIRDMAN soars

BIRDMAN is the story of a washed up actor who saw his career plummet after walking away from the latest sequel in his superhero franchise twenty years ago. That actor, Riggan Thomsan, is on the verge of a possible comeback via the Broadway play he's directing, starring in, and adapted. The problem is the show isn't very good and it's just had to recast one of its main players at the start of previews.

Riggan Thomsan is played by Michael Keaton, which makes it very easy to see parallels between the character and the actor who walked away from the Batman franchise twenty years ago after doing two films. If you've followed any of the press tour, you've probably heard Keaton disavow any real kinship with Riggan. In at least one interview, he said that he doesn't think he's played a character he's identified with less than Riggan.

As crazy as it sounds, after seeing BIRDMAN, I believe him.

Riggan is a pretty good actor, but a not-pretty good human being. He's staked all of his assets on a self-indulgent vanity project. (At one point, Riggan's co-star Mike, played by Edward Norton, accuses Riggan of not even understanding what the story is about and charges that Riggan's rewritten it to give himself all of the good lines.)

At one point, he recounts a time when he was on a turbulent plane with George Clooney and he makes it sound like the greatest tragedy in life would be to die in a plane crash with the more-famous actor, as he would get all the publicity. To underscore his point, he reminds the person he's talking to that Farrah Fawcett died on the same day as Michael Jackson, the implication being that Jackson hogged all the spotlight. Keaton plays this moment superbly, giving the plane story such conviction that we're almost tempted to empathize with him until we realize just how narcissistic he is.

There never seems to be any doubt that this is all about reputation for Riggan. He might regularly trot out an old story about why he got into acting, but his greatest passion is himself. It's a wise decision not to make him an over-the-top Type A egotist, as that treatment would turn him into something of a cartoon. Instead, Riggan becomes the more likely worst-outcome of someone who once lived their life at the top of the A-list and then fell back to Earth.

Riggan regularly hears the gruff voice of his Birdman alter-ego, often taunting him, sometimes urging his worst impulses. For a while we wonder if it's real or if he's crazy, though that ambiguity is threatened as Riggan starts displaying the ability to telekinetically toss objects across a room. He eventually graduates to flying, but the film leaves open the possibility that this is all a delusion. In fact, the final moments of the film pretty much hinge on that ambiguity. (And as this is only showing on four screens, that's pretty much all I'll say about that for now.)

The film's thoroughly character-driven from start to finish. As much as the three-act structure is there, this is not a movie where you'll be overtly aware of the structure. One of the great strength's of the film is how well-rounded the supporting cast is. Edward Norton probably leaves the biggest impression as an actor who's an asshole in an entirely different way than Riggan is. Amy Ryan has only a few scenes as Riggan's ex-wife but they go a long way towards filling out Riggan and to making her character real. Emma Stone also has a nice turn as Riggan's neglected daughter, fresh out of rehab and working for her father.

You may have heard about how director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film to appear as if it was one continuous take. That's not entirely accurate, as there's one cutaway near the end, but otherwise, yes, this does refine the same technique that Hitchcock pioneered in Rope. Is it essential to the film? I'd say "not entirely." You could tell this story with conventional coverage and editing and it still probably would be a compelling character portrait.


Does the style add anything? Yes, for the most part. It's oddly appropriate for a film about a stage play to appear to have been shot with "no second chances" either. It does give the acting a little more theatricality on a subliminal level. Where I think it doesn't work is the overly-frequent moments where the camera seems to be right in the actor's face with a wide angle lens. It's hard not to feel like a "close-talker" and while the subliminal invasion of personal space is almost certainly a deliberate choice, some close-ups feel so distorted that it's hard to fight the urge to scream "step back!" at the camera operator.

That's more of a personal aesthetic preference, though. I tend to favor long takes with a lot of depth of field so that the audience "edits" their own close-ups in a way by deciding what part of the frame to focus on. (Spielberg uses this technique a lot.) Iñárritu definitely wants to control where your focus goes and it's a style that will probably work better for some than for others.

The visual trick would also feel less like a gimmick if the film took place in real time. Instead, the movie covers what appears to be several weeks, transitioning forward in time within shots. It's the same sort of transition that you can imagine being done on a stage, which is the main way you could justify the technique as it's deployed here.

BIRDMAN is certainly one of the more interesting films of this year, featuring one performance that's sure to get a lot of talk as we head into Oscar season. If you want to learn how to write roles that will appeal to A-list talent, see this film.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Go and read this COLLATERAL article right now

Right, like there was any way I wasn't going to link to this. Over on Entertainment Weekly's site, Darren Franich has written an incredibly thorough and insightful article on one of my favorite films, Collateral.


Collateral is all of Michael Mann's movies in one—even The Keep. And more: Collateral is a high point in the career of basically everyone involved. It's the last Tom Cruise film from the pre-Katie Holmes era—the epitome of Cruise in his unquestioned superstardom, before the couch-jumping Weird Period and the post-couch re-entrenchment in his PG-13 Action-Movie Fortress of Solitude. It's the last film Jamie Foxx made before Ray turned him into Oscar Winner Jamie Foxx and then Hit Musician Jamie Foxx and then Frustrating Actor Jamie Foxx.

Everything you could possibly want or need to know about Collateral is in this article. Set aside a good chunk of time and read it now.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joshua Caldwell's $6,000 film LAYOVER is now available for rental and purchase

Perhaps you remember that a few months ago I promoted director Joshua Caldwell's feature film Layover. Caldwell shot the entire film for $6,000 dollars, keeping the budget down largely via the usage of a small crew, calling in favors and stealing shots throughout Los Angeles whenever possible.

Oh, and almost the entire movie is in French.

I saw the film when it screened in L.A. as part of Dances With Films. I have to admit, I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn't like the film. I was especially wary of the decision to shoot it in French considering I knew the director didn't speak the language himself. To my relief, the film worked. It had a very cool look and the subtitles didn't provide the barrier to entry I feared they would.

I'm for anything that encourages people to get out there and make their own content. I'm not sure this makes sense as an ongoing business model (just try getting a crew of people to work for free on several projects of this type and you'll learn the limits of the favors people are willing to do for you) but I'm excited by the potential for motivated individuals to produce "calling card" films and use them to get to the next level.

Starting today, Layover is now available here. You can make your own judgement on this film for the low price of $6.95. What's more, you can get a dollar off purchase by using the code: bttr.

You can also simply rent it for $4.95. Or you can purchase the film with a DIY bundle that includes commentary, an interview with Joshua Caldwell and "anatomy of a scene" clips. That'll cost you $9.99, but the bittr code will get you $1 off of that purchase too.

LAYOVER: In this French-language feature film debut from writer/director Joshua Caldwell, Simone (Nathalie Fay) is a young Parisian en route to her wedding in Singapore. But when the airline cancels her connecting flight, she’s forced to spend the night in Los Angeles. She decides to make the best of it and contact an old acquaintance, Juliette (Bella Dayne), who is going through a rough patch in her marriage. Invigorated by her friend’s arrival, Juliette insists on taking Simone out for a night of club-hopping. With little regard for her friend, Juliette soon disappears with a stranger, leaving Simone stranded downtown without a ride. When an attractive motorcyclist (Karle Landler) appears and offers her a ride, Simone cautiously accepts, leading to an evening of adventure that results in her questioning her life’s direction and, ultimately, if she’s truly ready to make her connection in the morning. 

Joshua Caldwell is an accomplished director, writer, producer, and MTV Movie Award winner. He has worked with a number of high profile producers, including CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker, for whom he produced Cybergeddon the online global motion picture event for Yahoo! and directed all of the film’s ancillary content for the immersive website. His award-winning short film Dig, starring Mark Margolis of Breaking Bad, was featured in numerous film festivals. He’s directed episodes of Welcome to Sanditon, the new series from the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Furrocious, a webseries for Discovery Channel Online. Most recently, released his latest short film Resignation and his debut feature film Layover had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the New American Cinema Award.

Festivals: 
World Premiere: Seattle International Film Festival (In competition) 
California Premiere: Dances With Films (In competition) 
Festival du Nouveau Cinema de Montreal 
Scottsdale International Film Festival 
Surrey International Film Festival Awards: 
SIFF: Nominated for the New American Cinema award 
DWF: Nominated for Grand Jury Prize.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl is a perfect marriage of complex plot and complex characters.

WARNING: This article will include all manner of Gone Girl spoilers, up to and including the ending.  If you have not seen the film, I highly suggest you turn back because this is one film that is absolutely enhanced by knowing as little as possible!

You have been warned.

I have not read Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl. I actually made a pretty effective effort at not being spoiled about the details of the story before seeing the feature film adaptation directed by David Fincher and written by Flynn herself. If you're unfamiliar with the novel, that's the viewing experience I recommend for all of you because Gone Girl is one of those films that works best when you're not sure which way it's going to swerve.

What I appreciated most about Gone Girl is that this was not a film that felt like it made a choice between having a complex, twisting plot and complex characters. There's enough real estate here for both. Usually in these kinds of films, the plot goes through so many contortions that the characters either don't have time to be fleshed out, or the film needs them to be cyphers so that later twists aren't telegraphed. Wild Things is a good example of this, a fun, trashy thriller with more turns than a roller coaster, but barely any pretension about its cast of characters. It's far harder to tell a story about complex people and maintain enough mystery about them to keep shocking us late into a complex story. I assure you, while it might be an odd comparison to draw, Wild Things was a film that kept springing to mind during my viewing. The two films would make a great double feature.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an unemployed professor who comes home on his fifth anniversary to find his wife Amy missing and some furniture smashed. He calls the police and they immediately begin investigating as a missing person's case, starting with going through the motions of checking out Nick as a suspect. Because Amy's a minor celebrity (her mother is a children's author who's used Amy as inspiration for the heroine of her books), the case quickly becomes a media frenzy.

Speculation and rumor all become grist for the mill of the 20-hour news cycle. Pundits don't waste much time before speculating on Nick's guilt, pointing out strange behavior like smiling while posing for pictures with his wife's "Missing" poster, and noting that he seems unusually close to his twin sister.

Just as the police and the press aren't sure what to make of Nick, we find our opinion of his innocence wavering as well. The crime scene at the house seems staged and Nick alternately seems too eager to please and too defensive when his own guilt is floated. Those suspicions only deepen as we learn that his marriage with Amy wasn't the fairy tale that they're feeding the press. Flashbacks show us their union in an early blissful state, but soon we are presented with money troubles. There was tension when Nick moved the two of them from Amy's home of New York to Nick's birthplace of Missouri to be with his dying mother. As both suffered the loss of their jobs, financial pressures and internal tensions mounted, capped off with disagreements over whether or not to have a baby.

Some of this we are told from Nick and a great deal of it comes from Amy's diary. Amy doesn't always paint the most flattering portrait of Nick and when Nick's behavior appears to back up Amy's observations, it becomes more apparent that Nick might not see his wife's death as the worst thing that could happen to him. After all, it's hard not to make a suspect out of a guy who's revealed to be sleeping with a student of his who's in her "early twenties." (When Nick uses this to describe her, it feels like we're almost supposed to read that as "19" or "20," and frankly, the only detail we get that truly contradicts that is her later presence in a bar that Nick happens to own.)

Nick supposedly told his mistress he was getting a divorce, and since other scenes have helpfully informed us that Amy made him sign a pre-nup, it's not hard to make the leap. A sudden increase in her insurance policy just months earlier reinforces that suspicion. Affleck does really good work here, in a performance that's bound to be underrated.  It's a full hour into the film before Gone Girl really starts showing us its hand, and until then we need to be suspicious of Nick's guilt without Affleck's performance reading as clearly innocent or clearly guilty.

That's a tricky tightrope to walk, particularly when this is a movie that knows the audience will be jugging their assumptions of innocence and guilt. Affleck's performance needs to make us speculate. It's not a role that's meant to be seen as totally innocent up to a point so that we can be blindsided with a twist reveal of his guilt. Affleck needs to play Nick in a way that essentially turns us into those pundits, scrutinizing every out-of-place grin. Harder still, it's a delicate dance that the film needs to maintain even in Nick's "private" moments rather that just the instances he's in the public eye.

And then comes the first big twist, arriving just over an hour into the film - Amy is not only alive, but she's faked her own kidnapping and has spent months, possibly years plotting the perfect crime so that Nick will be framed for her death. It's a twist that most movies would use as their final denouement. When Gone Girl deploys it less than halfway into its two-and-a-half-hours, we know we're in for a ride.

She's very carefully left a trail of bread crumbs for the police to uncover - details like a fake journal that gradually makes Nick out to be a monster, the testimony of a "best friend" who became the supportive ear for Amy to talk about her "abusive" husband, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive merchandise that maxed out Nick's credit to make him look financially overextended with something to hide. That's not even getting into the lengths to which she's staged the "murder" scene and then plotted her own escape.

The second half of the film features some incredible work from Rosamund Pike, whose Amy is revealed as more and more unhinged as we peel back the layers of her psychosis. At one point, she indicates she plans to go so far as to kill herself just to make sure Nick gets the death penalty. That is conviction. It's amazing how far back her manipulations extend, having played both a boyfriend of seven years ago and one of twenty years ago like a fiddle.

The latter of the two is Desi, played by Neil Patrick Harris, whom Amy turns to after her first plan goes sour. The film makes an interesting choice here, too. Desi is no mere patsy, and when he quickly embraces Amy and sets up his lake house to act has her safe house, there's a glint of an edge to his joy at getting to play house with his ex. As he gives her the tour and notes the camera's everywhere, recording everything, for a moment we forget that Amy is a manipulative lunatic and almost shudder at the gilded cage she's about to be locked up in.

As obsessive as Amy is, Desi is a portrait of a different sort of obsession and Harris plays him like a stalker who's delighted that the object of his desire is now under his thumb. A lesser script might have made Desi an earnest dope, so as to heighten the tragedy when Amy kills him and then "escapes," claiming Desi had been holding her all this time. Much like how Nick is more interesting for not being a model husband, Desi is more compelling by how "messy" his character is too.

Yes, Amy's scheme is so convoluted that you could probably pick a lot of it apart if you were determined. This is where Fincher's wizardry is visible and the movie effectively casts its spell while we view it. Where movies often get into trouble is when the execution is so sloppy that the audience can't help but question the logic in the moment. It's not that there aren't loose threads to pull on, but they're very well hidden.

The film's final stages become genuinely unpredictable, and it is here where the twists are leavened with some dark humor. Much of it lands, but the audience I was with was clearly thirsting for those reliefs from the tension. Lines that should have been darkly funny (and seemed to have been delivered correctly) got uproarious laughter because of the pent-up nervous laughter. Particularly during some of the final chess moves between Nick and Amy, it threatened to break the spell.

I feel like I could devote a full day or two of posts just to Amy and what the final act says about her insanity and motivations. There's a delicious irony in that in order to clear his name, Nick had to pretend to be the man whom Amy always wished she had married. Now that she's has exonerated him by turning up alive, she coerces him to continue that act for the rest of his life. How she pulls this off is an act of pure evil that's astonishing even after everything we've seen her do. Nick might have escaped any legal judgement, but he got a life sentence nonetheless.

The very first screenplay I ever wrote dealt with the police investigation of the disappearance a college co-ed, with suspicion quickly falling on her egotistical film student boyfriend.. As the story progressed, it seemed the film student was almost making sure he was a suspect, as if the whole thing was staged.  And then the girl's body turned up, with evidence implicating the boyfriend... who was now in the position of trying to convince police that he did stage the disappearance with the girlfriend and that her turning up dead was never part of the plan.  I liked the idea of someone masterminding the perfect frame-job and having that upended in a way that totally screwed them over.


(In Gone Girl, I also felt echoes of a season ten episode of Law & Order called "Patsy," where a man claims he's been framed not only for the murder of his girlfriend, but an assault on her comatose sister. Of course, the lengths someone would have to go to in order to frame him for those crimes appears to be preposterous.... except that it might be exactly what happened.)

That old script of mine had a number of flaws that I eventually learned from to become a better writer, but I couldn't help but think of it during stretches of Gone Girl. I sat there in the dark, musing, "Damn. This is the movie I wish I'd made."

We're given a number of memorable characters and performances, but this is a real breakout for Rosamund Pike, whose character is brilliantly summed up by Affleck in a line every viewer will feel like they could have written: "You. Fucking. Bitch." You won't easily forget her as credits roll, that's for sure.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A call for questions for a Q and A with The Black List's Franklin Leonard

We're coming up on two years since the launch of the Black List website and so I thought it would be a good time to reach out to its founder Franklin Leonard about doing another interview. This time, I'd love to open the floor up to you guys to ask questions.

There's something you should know about Franklin - he doesn't shrink from confrontation or hard questions. The first time I interviewed him, he indicated a desire for an interview "to come at me." So consider this a no-holds barred interview. If you ask a question about the Black List, I will pass it to him, even if it's a hard question.

The only ones I will be filtering for will be the sort of trolling "are you still beating your wife" type of questions. You guys are better than that and I know that anyone with a legitimate question won't squander this opportunity. If you have a question or a concern about the Black List, leave it in comments or email me at zuulthereader@gmail.com.

Monday, September 29, 2014

My thoughts on the remake of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

I'm a couple weeks late reacting to this, but I wanted to put in a few thoughts about the announced remake of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER.  No, that's not a joke. Deadline reported two weeks ago:

This one is being written by Oculus co-writer/director Mike Flanagan and partner Jeff Howard who are adapting the 1973 Lois Duncan book again. Producing is Neal Moritz (Fast and Furious franchise) who also produced the original 17 years ago.

The original film came out in 1997 and starred Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and since there's no better way to put this, it's mostly remembered for the assets that led to this quote from Jennifer Love Hewitt, "We had this joke on the set... All the girls wore tiny tops, so we called it 'I Know What Your Breasts Did Last Summer.'"


I guarantee that if the producers get nothing else right, they will strive to be faithful to that aspect.
 
I was a teenager when the original movie came out and because of that I have a couple reasons for being a bit ambivalent towards this remake. The first is just the feeling that I'm really wary of the fact that we're now reaching into not just the 90s, but the LATE 90s for our remakes. How far off are we from remaking Austin Powers and American Beauty?

The second reason is more self-serving - I wanted to be the one to remake I Know What You Did Last Summer!

This is true. You can find me on record in both 2009 (in the comments) and in 2011 talking about the potential in a remake. I've long said that remakes shouldn't be about remaking what was already successful. There's almost zero chance you could hope to make a better film and the shortcomings of the latter production are only more pronounced when stacked up against the classic.

Instead, a better way to go would be to remake a film that had a germ of a good idea, but failed to execute it properly. For years, IKWYDLS was my go-to film when discussing something with a lot of unrealized potential. Instead of a slasher, I saw an opportunity for a morality play. The set-up is the same - four teens accidentally kill someone while out joyriding, then dump the body and vow to keep the secret. 

My vision was to have the drama focus on how keeping the secret weighs on each of the teens involved, as that's a hell of a character-based concept. Honestly, it's an element that could have stood to be woven into the slasher version more. You'd need an antagonist of some sort who'd send the notes reading "I know what you did last summer..." but I'd probably not go for a psycho slasher. My gut would be to make that "villain" someone slightly sympathetic, someone we might even be tempted to root for.

I probably wouldn't go the route of being faithful to the Lois Duncan novel, though. My recollection is that the novel had fallen into relative obscurity by the time of the first movie. I read it years ago after seeing the movie, and it's pretty fair to say that the book would be unfilmable if you were determined to preserve the exact plot and mystery.  A key twist relies on the reader not realizing that the characters of Bud and Collie, who have separately interacted with each of the girls in the story, are actually the same person. While it's a shocker on the page, it's not a twist that works in a visual medium.

Whatever direction the remake takes, I hope that it can be a little more character-driven than its predecessor. And now I'm going to have to find another go-to answer for "What film would you want to remake?"