Wednesday, August 30, 2017


The riots that exploded in Detroit in July 1967 left 43 people dead, thousands injured and incarcerated, and with large chunks of the city reduced to smouldering ruins. When approaching events this vast and complex, which story do you choose to tell? Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal begin their new film Detroit by taking a macro view. The film opens with a montage based on Jacob Lawrence's Migration series of paintings, explaining the movement of black people from the south to the north in search of work, and how racial tensions subsequently developed in cities such as this.

It's a surprisingly lyrical opening for a film distinguished by the blunt force of its violence and for its escalating tension, which is achieved through the sharp editing of William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, and Barry Ackroyd's nervy, responsive cinematography; but Bigelow isn't completely averse to finding grace notes amid the violence. When Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics, learns that the concert they were set to perform in has been cancelled on police advice, just before they go on stage, he walks out onto the stage anyway. Picking up the microphone, he sings a solo number, his voice echoing around the now-empty auditorium, and then the camera catches the mixture of emotions on his face as he imagines doing that in front of an audience that is now running home through the battle-scarred streets. He savours the moment, and so should we, because such tender interludes are in short supply as the film progresses.

Bigelow does a good job of showing us how the riot was sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed club while simultaneously introducing us to the key players. As Larry and his bandmates run to the sanctuary of the Algiers Motel, we meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a quiet, conscientious security guard who we see drinking coffee with the National Guard when shots are heard from the direction from Algiers. Among the first responders to the scene are three policemen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) – who had been introduced earlier in the film through Kraus shooting a fleeing looter in the back, the groceries under his arms spilling onto the street as he ran for his life. That man ended up dying a couple of blocks away under a car. Krauss was informed that he'd face a murder charge, and then he walked out of the police station and headed for the Algiers.

Although the title Detroit suggests an overview of the riots that engulfed the city, the filmmakers are primarily interested in what happened at the Algiers. For the whole middle section of the film we rarely venture outside this building. The police and the National Guard move in, pull the residents out into the hallway (five black men and two young white women who had been partying with them) and subject them to a long night of brutal physical and psychological abuse aimed at revealing the whereabouts of a sniper rifle that we already know doesn't exist. Led by Krauss, the police strike the men with their fists, boots and the butts of their rifles, baiting them into a response – at one point, Flynn offers one of them his knife, encouraging him to defend himself. The torture escalates until they begin taking individuals into separate rooms and firing shots to make the others believe that they are going to execute suspects in cold blood if one of them doesn't give up the information they want.

It's hard to fault Bigelow's staging of this sequence. She gets in tight to the characters, allowing us to feel their overwhelming fear and confusion, making us see the impact of every blow administered by the leering cops. The sequence is claustrophobic, repulsive and agonising; it must last for something like an hour of screen time but it feels twice that. Her depiction is entirely convincing but ultimately that's all it feels like – a depiction. There's little to be gleaned from watching this aside from how appalling it all is, and Boal's screenplay fails to give us any insight into the characters' actions or, in some cases, their inaction. The figures who seemed to be set up as the ostensible leads are only given a single note to play. Krauss is very much the villain of the piece, and while Poulter relishes his scene-stealing opportunity, his work has little shading (I was much more intrigued by the casual, understated sadism of O'Toole's Flynn), while Boyega can't do much with such a passive character.

We see Boyega two more times after the motel ordeal is finally over; once when Dismukis is brought in and interrogated as a suspect, and later at the trial when the officers are cleared of all charges. We are told in the closing text that he faced death threats following his involvement in the Algiers incident, but the trial eats up so much of the film's muddled final third he, like many of the characters, feels thrown away. The only one whose story we continue to follow is Larry Reed, who finds he can no longer make music for white audiences to enjoy and gravitates towards the church, where he can sing with his own people. It's the closest thing the film has to a satisfying character arc, but it doesn't feel like enough. Bigelow and Boal have chosen to focus on exploring one incident in excruciatingly close detail, but in doing so it feels like they have lost sight of the bigger picture.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Commentary Tracks - Deliverance

Deliverance (1972) with director John Boorman

On casting
Originally, the studio said, “Look, we'll do this picture if you can find two stars.” So I went out and found two stars. Then the studio said, “Well, it's going to cost too much with these two stars so you'd better go and make it really cheaply with unknown actors.” So I went all over America looking for actors in theatres, and I found two, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Neither of them had ever made a film or done television or anything. But I couldn't really find unknowns to fill the two main roles and so I got onto [Jon] Voight, and Voight resisted the picture. He had just made a film called The All-American Boy and it was a mess, he was trying to salvage it. He was thinking about giving up acting. I eventually persuaded him to do the role and he said I saved his life, and then spent three months trying to kill him. Then I went to Burt [Reynolds] and fortunately I didn't know, coming from the outside, that Burt had done three TV series that were unsuccessful. I didn't know anything about that so I put him in the picture.

On the music
You'll see in the first sequence of the film, the two cars with the canoes come up to a little filling station, and there they encounter this boy who seems to be retarded. He plays a banjo and Ronny Cox, with his guitar, they play this Duelling Banjos, which is a traditional piece, and that was always written into the script. But the studio demanded that I still cut more out of the budget. I'd intended to use Duelling Banjos as a theme through the film, so I decided to dump the composer and the orchestra and use Duelling Banjos as the entire score. I spent two hours in a recording studio with a banjo picker and a guitarist and we recorded the whole thing. When the picture opened I tried to persuade Warner Records to bring a record out and the head of the Warner Records gave me this lecture. He said, “Let me tell you something about the music business. This is not rock and roll. If radio stations don't play it, it won't be successful. It's not rock and roll, it's not middle of the road and it's not country music, so nobody's going to play it.” I persuaded them to bring it out in a small test area and it turned out that every radio station played it, and it became a number one record. It's become famous, of course. Whenever anybody finds themselves in a dark wood or a savage river, they hum that tune.

On James Dickey
We did a lot of rehearsal and a lot of training, because they had to learn to canoe, and archery and so forth. During that period of training James Dickey, who wrote the novel, a wonderful poet and an intimidating man, I invited him to come up to the rehearsals in Clayton, Georgia. He drank a lot and he really spooked the actors because he insisted on calling them by the characters they were playing. When I first went to meet Dickey he took me to one side and said, “I'm gonna tell you something I've never told a living soul. Everything in that boat happened – to me.” Well, I was so shocked, you know, and I had my production manager with me. Since I'd been sworn not to tell a living soul, of course I couldn't wait to tell someone. I told my production manager and he said, “Yes, he told me the same thing.” When we were up there he took each of these actors aside and told them the same story. When I got in a canoe with James Dickey and he capsized it, I realised that absolutely nothing in this book had happened to him, and I'm much more impressed with a man who could invent this story than a man who lived it.

On shooting the river
This scene where they finally see this river is very powerful. Behind it is this notion that the river is going to disappear, is going to be flooded, and the beauty of it is going to be lost. It's a metaphor, really. A dam is going to produce electricity for the air conditioners in Atlanta, and to do so the river is killed. I searched and searched for a river to shoot this picture on. I wanted it to be as wild and savage as possible, and wherever I looked and took photos of them, you know, the film stock we use makes everything look pretty. I found this river, which has these jagged rocks and canyons and rapids, and it's one of the most dangerous rivers in America for canoeing, and it still looked pretty. So what I did was, all the scenes on the river were desaturated, so we took some of that colour away. You see now how the green is muted. I wanted to dispense with that prettiness.

On costume design
I was speaking earlier about how, in a film, the casting and the behaviour of the characters tells you about them and you don't need tedious scenes showing them with their wives and families, and so the costuming becomes very important. You see Burt there with his sawn-off rubber jacket exposing his biceps, and you see the blandness of Ed with his grey sweater there, and Ned with his pork pie hat and football jersey. Selecting their clothes is a way of building the characters and the costume sessions with actors are always very interesting. I made a couple of films with Lee Marvin and he was always very meticulous about his costumes and his props. Good film actors recognise that they can say a lot with what they wear.

On the rape scene
My intention with these mountain men, the underlayer psychologically, was that they were the malevolent spirits of the forest, of nature, and that this was nature's revenge on these men who represented the people of Atlanta who were killing the river. The famous expression “squeal like a pig” came about in a very interesting way, because when I was shooting the picture the studio demanded that I shot alternative scenes for television, including language. Nobody liked doing these TV alternatives, it was a drag, but I think it was Rospo Pallenberg who came up with “squeal like a pig” which was to take the place of a more powerful kind of language, but it was so good I decided to keep it in the main version. Ned was marvellous in the way he acted this scene out, and he and Bill McKinney spent a lot of time together before we shot it, because everyone was nervous of it. I didn't know how to shoot it until, as is often the way with me, until I found a setting. This setting, with these brown leaves and these laurels, with these acid green leaves and the tangled wood, as soon as I found this setting I knew how to shoot it. You'll notice that it's all really done from the point of view of Voight, we're seeing what he saw, from that distance. Ned, you know, all his life he's had to endure this; every time someone sees him on the street they say “squeal like a pig,” and he wrote a very interesting piece in The New York Times many years ago, when they were doing a whole feature about rape, and he felt like a rape victim. The censor wanted to cut some of this this, as you might expect, and I resisted it, but I suppose this hadn't been seen in cinema before. I met somebody just the other day and he said to me, “I saw that film of yours, Deliverance. I walked out halfway through, and I've never been to the cinema since.”

On the rapids crash sequence
This we shot on another piece of river where there was a dam, and we were able to stop the water higher up and then release it. We were able to build underwater rails for that canoe to go on when it collapses, and it was all triggered. Then we rehearsed it and the water came down in a kind of dribble, so I said, “Okay, open another sluice gate,” and they did and we got rather more river than we really intended. This is the one shot that has the double for Jon Voight, but Burt comes down this himself. The canoe comes clattering down, the wooden one is completely lost at this point, and I had a lot of angry actors at this point because I really let too much water down and it was raging. Here's Burt doing that shot himself and he injured his back. We had a net just below that as there's another vast, deep fall, and I'm screaming here on the radio mic, “Stop the water!” Every time I look at those shots of the water coming down I feel terrible guilt that I put these men into more danger than I should have.

On shooting and editing
The film editor is called Tom Priestley, the son of J.B. Priestley, and I'd done a film with Tom before. He had great concentration, but I shoot very little film and very few takes – of course with stuff like this I couldn't shoot many takes. There are some passages, particularly the discussion after the death of the mountain man, that I shot it in one shot, but then I got nervous and decided to cover it from other angles, and that was tremendously well cut by Tom Priestley. But for the most part, my method of shooting is to shoot very little, I mean, when I made Point Blank at MGM I had the lowest ratio of film of any director for the last 20 years. I prefer to spend a lot of time rehearsing and getting things right, and I try to get everybody realising on the film that every time the camera is rolling it's going to be in the movie. If you shoot from loads of different angles and lenses the feeling gets to the actors that this shot is probably not going to be in the film, and I try to raise the tension by making the actors know that if my cameras are running then it's going to be in the movie.

On acting styles
Voight is such a tremendous actor. He was very much an actor in the Brando tradition of reality, and everything was a struggle for Jon at that time in his life, he questioned everything. Burt was completely different, Burt just wanted to get it done and he would always find a way of getting through a scene. Jon would challenge it all the time, challenge everything, “Why am I doing it this way? What am I doing?” So he was a good influence on Burt because he pushed Burt to be more thoughtful, and Burt pushed him to be more spontaneous. Voight is a method actor, I suppose you'd have to say, so if we're doing a scene where he's out of breath Jon would say to me, “Okay, I need three minutes warning before the shot so I can get out of breath.” He would then run, sprint for three minutes to get himself sweating and out of breath. Burt would say to me, “I need 20 seconds warning before the shot,” so Jon would come running back, puffing, and Burt would squirt some spritzer onto his face for sweat and [imitates panting] breathe. That was indicative of their two methods of acting.

Bits and Pieces

The fascinating thing about the inbreeding which is so notorious in these communities, the thing I discovered up there, is that these were the descendants of white people who married Indians, and then they were ostracised by both the Indians and the whites. So they turned in on themselves and this strange, hostile, inwards-looking community grew up around that history.

Look at this character now, this woman. Look, the way they live there. That was just completely how it was, that was not set up in any way. It was just us peering through the window with a camera.

When the film opened in Atlanta, at the premiere, Burt was standing next to Dickey and a radio reporter came with a microphone and said, “Mr. Reynolds, I understand that you had problems with Mr. Dickey?” Burt said, “Yes, I did say that, but I also believe Mr. Dickey is one of America's greatest poets. What do you say to that, Mr. Dickey?” Jim Dickey said, “Well, I don't know how many of America's great poets Mr. Reynolds has read.”

Somebody called me who was writing his official biography after he died, and I was telling him how Dickey had this air of the tough frontiersman. I said, “He didn't have anything to prove. After all, he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war.” And the biographer said that was also a lie. I prefer to call it invention, imagination.

After the film came out a lot of people wanted to canoe this river, and several were drowned. I was asked how I felt about that and if I felt responsible, and I was able to reply by saying that I made the river look as dangerous and life-threatening as possible, so anyone who canoed it must have know what to expect.

The worst thing that happened was that they had a wipeout and Ned was in the water and he disappeared, and he didn't come up for just over a minute. I had a diver with me always and he went in to find him, and we searched and searched and it was just dreadful. Eventually he popped up and we got him out, and I said, “Ned, what did you think when you were on the point of drowning?” He said, “I thought, how is John going to finish the film without me?” And then his second thought was, “He'll find some way to finish it without me, I know he will,” and that's when he got determined to live and he got to the surface.

Vilmos Zsigmond was the cameraman. He's Hungarian, you know. He got out of Hungary in 1956 when the Russians moved into Budapest, and he shot the footage we saw of the Russian tanks and the students throwing Molotov cocktails. I thought, a man who has done that, being fired on by Russians, is the kind of man I need for a film like this.

See when he looks back there? I said to Voight, “Just look back at that point.” He said, “Why would I look back like that?” I said, “Well, because it improves the composition.” He said, “I can't do that because there's no reason.” I said, “Okay, you hear a noise,” and he said, “Oh, fine, okay.” That's how I got him to look back and got this marvellous composition.

Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward, the man with the missing teeth, Burt Reynolds found him. Burt used to work in a dude ranch with Cowboy Coward and he suggested him for the part. We were staying at this motel, and Cowboy's idea of a nice evening was to get two dozen bottles of beer in a bathtub, with a lot of ice, and he'd sit on the toilet seat and work his way through them.

Final Thoughts

It's the first time I've seen this film must be ten years at least. When I watch one of my films, I think most directors would agree with this, shortly after having made it, all you can see and remember is the pain you suffered in doing it and all the things you could have done better. After a period of time – in this case 20 years since I made it, 10 years since I looked at it – the wounds have healed and the pain has diminished, and I can see its quality. It has a great power to it. What I do remember with pleasure is the comradeship, the actors, the crew, Vilmos Zsigmond, Rospo Pallenberg, everyone who helped me do it. This film was an adventure and the people who shared it have a bond which has lasted ever since. Those actors are all my friends and we see each other, and it's like meeting someone you fought in a war with. You look at each other's eyes and you say, “Well, we did it.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Work

When was the last time you cried? For many of the men we see in The Work, tears are something they can't afford; they're a sign of weakness, of vulnerability, of shame. These men have spent years building up walls around themselves and burying their emotions, which makes the moments in which those emotions break through to the surface so extraordinary to witness. Twice a year, The Inside Circle Foundation brings together inmates at the Folsom maximum-security prison for four days of group therapy, aimed at addressing their most deep-rooted issues and creating a safe space for them to open up. Any gang affiliations or prior beefs are left outside. As Rick, a former member of the Aryan brotherhood, says near the start of the film, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.”

The most intriguing aspect of this programme is that the prison also invites members of the public to join the prisoners in these sessions. The Work opens by introducing us to some of the civilians who have signed up for this project, and while it’s easy to see how the inmates could benefit from these rehabilitative exercises, the outsiders’ motivations for signing up are initially a little more vague. Some talk of wanting to find a sense of purpose in their lives, others are determined to confront their own fears, but all of them reveal more pain, anger and sorrow than they could have anticipated. Whether they are inmates at Folsom or free men, everyone we see in The Work appears to be imprisoned in the same way.

The Work’s co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take a straightforward approach to the film. They focus on one working group in particular, with a few particularly string characters coming to the fore. Chief among them is Vegas, a tall black man with a calm demeanour and piercing eyes, who we see working with Kiki, a fellow inmate, when he admits he hasn’t cried in so many years he no longer knows how. Through gentle but persistent cajoling he pushes Kiki to locate those buried emotions and bring them to the surface, to the point where he collapses to the floor, wracked by sobs. Other participants fight against their emotions and have to be restrained as they scream and rage. One civilian in particular, a teacher’s assistant named Brian, emerges as a fascinating figure. He sits in detached judgement of the other men, testing their patience, until one of them calls him out on his behaviour and he reveals his own feelings of inadequacy rooted in his fixed ideas of what he should be as a man. The Work is a powerful portrait of the damage toxic masculinity can do.

Some of the men respond to comforting words, others need to be prodded more aggressively, and some require roleplaying sessions to let down their guard, with one man having an inmate play the role of his father so he can finally tell him things he has kept bottled up since childhood. The filmmakers get close to the men with their cameras, following the ebb and flow of each emotional journey, creating a real sense of intimacy, and the moments of connection and release that they capture have a visceral, shattering impact. As we focus on one group, we occasionally hear the sounds emanating from the other gatherings – laughter, tears, anger – but sometimes it's the quieter moments that really land. When Vegas tightly hugs a suicidal young inmate named Dante, having possibly just dissuaded him from taking his own life, a microphone picks up the rhythm of their beating hearts.

Towards the end of the film I couldn't help wondering, how do the lessons learned in these sessions figure in the inmates' day-to-day lives at Folsom? When they go back into the yard, doesn't the emotional armour go straight back up? The filmmakers don't give us any insight to the world outside of the chapel, aside from a closing statement informing us that of the forty men who have been released from jail having gone through this programme, none have yet returned, a fact that I found deeply heartening. The Work presents us with a group of angry, damaged men and allows us to watch as they open their hearts and souls, as they courageously strive to be better people. I found the film exhausting, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring, and I hope each of these men walked out of that chapel after four days into a future that looked much brighter than their past.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Wind River

Wind River is the third film written by Taylor Sheridan to be released in cinemas in the space of three years, and it’s the first to be directed by Sheridan himself. Perhaps that’s a problem. Wind River feels of a piece with Sicario and Hell of High Water in terms of its thematic territory and its play with genre conventions, but it lacks the style and perspective that an experienced director might have brought to the material. Sheridan makes good use of the majestic snowy peaks that surround his characters, but without a knack for telling his story in visual terms the success and failure of his film rests heavily on the screenplay, and it is often found wanting.

The film begins with a young woman running for her life through the snow. The next morning her barefoot, frozen corpse is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who acts as a guide to this territory when young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is despatched to investigate. The territory in question is an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, which makes Renner’s role a slightly awkward fit. His character married into this community and he has earned their trust and respect, but it still doesn’t sit well that it’s Renner educating us on the plight of Native Americans. Lambert is apparently a better hunter, tracker and marksman than anyone who hails from this land, and his abilities drive the narrative while Banner’s more traditional investigative techniques fail. He’s prone to spouting aphorisms such as, “You want to hunt a wolf, you don’t go where it might be, you go where it’s been” in his hunt for the killers, and his instincts never fail. One can’t help wondering how much more interesting the film might be if his character was a Native American, and Olsen’s Banner was the only outsider.

Lambert’s motivation stems largely from his kinship with the father of the dead girl as his own teenage daughter was killed some years before in a similar and unsolved murder; an incident that, we assume, was partially responsible for the breakup of his marriage. Sheridan takes some time in the film’s opening twenty minutes to set up Lambert’s relationship with his ex-wife and his young son, but these characters are arbitrarily dropped from the film when the central narrative kicks in, one of a few strands left hanging in Sheridan’s uncharacteristically straggly script. In fact, far too many of the characters feel marginalised as Sheridan focuses on Lambert. His sense of loss and grief is placed centrally in the narrative while we occasionally check in with the family of the more recently deceased girl. (The father is played by Gil Birmingham, so good in Hell or High Water and quietly touching here.)

Wind River is at its best when it plays as a straightforward thriller. Sheridan handles the film’s set-pieces well, particularly a sequence in which Banner – with temporarily impaired vision – stalks a suspect through a house, and a tense late stand-off that explodes into violence. He also teases out the tension of that climactic sequence by interrupting it with an extended flashback; the kind of bold narrative gamble that the film could have use a little more of. Wind River is engaging and moderately satisfying as a genre film, but it always feels like Sheridan is reaching for something greater; he wants to illuminate the situation of Native Americans in 21st century America, but that community has only intermittently come into focus throughout the course of the film. Wind River ends with the onscreen text: “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” It’s a sobering statement, and it left me wondering when a filmmaker was going to tell their story.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Commentary Tracks - Out of Sight

Out of Sight (1998) with director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank

Comments on the film

On the Glades Correctional Institution sequence
Steven Soderbergh I think this was the hardest stuff for George [Clooney] to do, because George is a very, very good basketball player, and to be bad in front of 500 cons at Angola prison in Louisiana absolutely destroyed him. He was so mortified. These are all real cons we were amongst, and I have to say George made this a lot easier for us than a lot of people would have. He never left the yard, from the moment we showed up with our cameras he stayed on the yard, he was very gracious with all the inmates, posing for pictures and autographs. If George had been the kind of actor who blew out of his trailer to play the tough guy for two minutes and then blew back into his trailer, I guarantee you we would have had some problems. But he was out there all day every day, and it really took a toll on him, he was really tired, but it was worth it for me. There's Luis Guzmán, one of my favourite actors, with Paul Soileau, who was from New Orleans. Another local hire who was really terrific.
Scott Frank He was really popular. The cons liked him a lot.
SS When we were shooting that scene of Chino and Lulu jogging, a con came up and pushed Luis aside and got right in Paul's face and said, "I wanna ride you! I wanna ride you, man!" and there was a bit of a scene getting him away from Paul. It was pretty intense.

On the trunk scene
SS The infamous trunk scene, we should talk about this. On the deleted scenes we have the original single take that was in the first preview. It was my brilliant idea to do this all in one shot. I did 45 takes, I used take 44, and that was what we put in the movie initially. Then we previewed the film, and it's really hard to find the words to describe how derailed the audience became at that point. It was just deadly. I came out of the preview in Seattle and Casey Silver, who was the head of Universal and had basically put me up for this job, said, “I like the movie. It's about 15 minutes too long and you've got to re-shoot the trunk.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” We went back and re-shot it to make it the way you see it now, and I'm actually glad we did because we added just a couple of things in the dialogue that really helped. One is the discussion of the ex-wife...
SF And the other is more discussion of Three Days of the Condor. He's hoping they're playing out Three Days of the Condor and she's saying, "You know I never believed how they got together," giving him a hard time. I think that helped a lot. And we cut a lot of his background story that he told about the banks he robbed. Also that shot in one take was a little bit farther away, so you didn't get that intimate feel, and cutting out allowed us to have easier transitions.
SS Oh, no question. I think all of my theories of why a single take would work were correct in a literal sense and when you saw it in the movie they were completely wrong. The problem is – and I should have known this too – stylistically it's not like anything else in the movie. The whole movie is cutty and jagged, so to have this one long uninterrupted take, it just felt like a different film. It's a nice short, though.

On the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary sequence
SS This was shot in a prison out in Palmdale, I think. It's a working prison, it's like a holding area for immigration violaters. We were working in a section that wasn't being used at the time and all these extras are ex-cons. We found an 'Ex-cons for Christ' group and hired about 400 of them to come in, so they had a great look about them. I remember when we were budgeting the film Universal said, "You know, we'll save half a million dollars if you shoot the two prisons in one prison. Can't you shoot all the Lompoc stuff in Angola, in Louisiana?" And I really fought them on it. I wanted Lompoc to have this desert, parched, blown-out look, so I held the line and I said, "Look, you can save half a million dollars but the movie would look cheaper."
SF I also think what's great about the way you shot the prison sequences, and the fact that they look so different, it helps you keep everything straight. There are so many different prisons in the course of the movie and so many different timeframes, you need to help out in some way.
SS It would have been really hard. I also chose the yellow jumpsuits. We had many different colours and because we had the desert look I chose yellow. I think that really helps, whenever you see a yellow jumpsuit you know you're in a flashback.

On the bath fantasy scene
SF This is one of those things that was in, then it was out...
SS Oh right, I think this is on the deleted scenes.
SF But also it was out of the script for a while, the whole fantasy.
SS Well on the deleted scenes there's a long fantasy scene here of George and Ving coming in and having a conversation about baths and...oh, lots of stuff.
SF ...lavender oil, vanilla candles, rosé wine...
SS The idea behind it was that this was her fantasy of what Foley and Buddy were talking about, but it ended up feeling like two guys who were completely in love with each other. It didn't work so I cut that dialogue and just left it like this. Now you invented this, obviously. It's not in the book.
SF The problem in the book is that you're always reading about how they're thinking about each other and the challenge was making that work in a movie.
SS Of course we had to close the set during all these scenes. I don't even think I was present.
SF I was peeking over the top of that wall.
SS It's tough to gauge how long you can get away with this because you can feel when you watch the movie that people are thinking, "Wait a minute..."
SF In the script it cuts on "Hey," but I think this is so much better, because it is over-the-top and you do want people going, "Oh, come on!”

On Ray Nicolette
SS Here, of course, is Michael Keaton, reprising his role as Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown, which I think was a Stacey [Sher] idea. He appears in both books, we should point out. We called up Tarantino and asked him what he thought of the idea and he thought it was a great idea, and he was nice enough to bring me into his editing room and show me all of Keaton's footage from Jackie Brown so I could get an idea of where Keaton was going with that part, to see if it really fit with what we were doing. We got hold of Keaton and he came down and did this just as a favour for nothing, which was really nice of him. To our knowledge this was a first, a character who appears in two completely unrelated movies played by the same actor. As far as all of us could determine nobody had ever done this before, which was part of its appeal.

On the sex scene
SF Again, this whole sequence was written straight in the screenplay.
SS Right, in the script they did half the dialogue here and then they went upstairs.
SF They did half the dialogue on the fly too, walking through the hotel, getting on the elevator, getting off the elevator, so they're kissing by the time they get to the door.
SS I remember calling you and saying I think we have to do something different.
SF All of this is you and Anne Coates, but mostly you. 
SS Well. I stole it from Don't Look Now. I remember telling you guys about the scene in Don't Look Now with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, where Nic Roeg intercuts the two them making love with the two of them getting dressed afterwards. There was something about the juxtaposition of those two events that was so intimate and you'd never think it would be, so I decided to just rip it off. When I explained it to people I would get a lot of blank stares.
SF In fact, when everyone looked at the dailies they kept saying the scene isn't hot enough.
SS In dailies it was probably hard to watch because I was grinding a lot of film to get little things like this that are hard to stage. I was running two cameras all the time and just doing take after take, and it was really boring to watch in dailies. I was getting a lot of flak for this scene not being more explicit in dailies, I do remember that, even from Anne Coates. I remember Anne, after she saw the dailies, asking if there's any more footage. I said no, that's it, and she said, “I'm afraid they don't really go at it.” She was very concerned that it wasn't explicit enough, but that stuff bores me. Somebody much smarter than me once said that as soon as an actor takes their clothes off in a movie, you're watching a documentary, and I think that's true. I think I break with the film. When somebody takes their clothes off I'm not watching the character any more, I go, "Oh my God, I'm seeing X, Y and Z with their clothes off!”

On changing Elmore Leonard's story
SF In the book Ripley's not in the house, there are no diamonds, White Boy Bob gets arrested, Buddy gets killed.
SS There's a kid. Who's the kid?
SF There's a 19 year-old housesitter who's having an affair with the maid, who's 45.
SS Well I think this is better and I don't care who knows it. I guess it's what we've been talking about, the difference between a book and a movie. It's stuff that all works great in the book but in a movie you've got to funnel the conflict.
SF Actually, it's the only thing in the book that doesn't quite work because you don't know why Jack is there. There's no guarantee of any kind of money there, he sort of knows already that Maurice is a psychopath, and the reason he gives in the book for going to try this is he tells Buddy, 'Well, I've never tried okra before either.' That's the line he gives in the book and you sort of lose patience with him at the end of the story because you don't know why he would do this unless it's a sort of fatalistic move. Because he's not a home invader, he's a bank robber.
SS This makes much more sense because now it's personalised.
SF Exactly.

Bits and Pieces

SS Here we go, another episode of A Couple of White Guys Sitting Around Talking.

SS Here's a classic example of a stubborn filmmaker. For months, Michael Shamberg was telling me you have to have music at the front of the movie to set the mood, it's no good if it's quiet, because I just had the street sounds there. I kept saying, you're wrong, you're wrong. I got really steamed at him at a meeting at Universal once, and I think it's because I knew he was right and I was really resisting it.
SF Also for a while we had to have the Universal music over the logo
SS That's true. We did win that battle, if you can call it a battle.

SS Here's George and his funny walk.

SF This bit with the flowers, in the script he hits him with a cross and Danny DeVito was a little concerned that we might get in trouble over him hitting him on the head with the cross. I did often wonder what a vase full of flowers is doing in the prison chapel, though.
SS Well, the prop guy put it there.

SS Here's Steve Zahn, another terrific actor. I remember when we previewed the movie, when Steve Zahn came on screen, before he even spoke, people were laughing at him. Like he was a friend of theirs, it was really amazing. It's a tough role in a way because it could turn into a real cartoon cliché, but Steve is so genuine it never feels like that.

SS Because it was so cold, I couldn't shoot this scene in Louisiana because the actors' breath was showing so much we had to stop. We re-shot this after principal photography in California and again it was so cold we could see their breath. Below frame here on every shot I've got a wall of gas heaters going. If you listen to the track really closely you can hear the hiss of these heaters, which I've tried to cover up with crickets.

SS That's not a real person. That's a dummy that we stabbed.
SF Really? I thought that was the other writer.

SS Here we are on our way to Detroit. This footage is some of my favourite in the movie only because I flew to Detroit, me and John Hardy and two guys, and I shot all this stuff myself on January 14th 1998, my 35th birthday. On my 35th birthday I was on the front of an insert car with a movie camera on my shoulder shooting this stuff. It was cold as all get-out, I had frozen tears on the side of my face, but we had fun.

SS It was cold this night, I tell ya. You can see it in the close-ups, with their breath, and you can actually see the frozen condensation on the tops of the cars. You can't fake that. I was going to say you can't buy that but actually you can because in Titanic they digitally put the breath in everybody's mouth, so you can buy it. But I couldn't buy it.

SS Here's Viola [Davis] on a sound stage in beautiful Universal City in California, and Jennifer [Lopez] in Detroit months later. I hate doing stuff like this. There are two shots in Kafka in a morgue scene at the end of the film, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Jeremy Irons shot on different months in different continents, that I had to put together. It's so frightening because you're convinced it's not going to work.

SS This is an actual house in Bloomfield Hills, where the action takes place in the book and the script, but it was in the process of being built. The interior is not complete at all so we shot the exterior in Detroit and every centimetre of the interior of the Ripley mansion was built on a soundstage by Gary Frutkoff. A couple of these sets, the library and the dressing room upstairs, the owners of the house in Bloomfield Hills came to the set in LA and liked these designs so much they asked for the plans so they could recreate this room here and the library in their house, which I thought was a very unusual turn of events.

SS Of course, in the TV version Don [Cheadle] says 'monkey feather,' which is actually scarier.

SS We were going to have a scene where Ving [Rhames] actually goes to the airport and runs into Jack Lemmon and gives him the diamonds, but we didn't have time.

Final Thoughts

SS We could sit here and poke holes in this thing all day. If that's what you want to do, Scott, then that's what we'll do, but it's not what...or maybe it is what people pay for. I don't know. Do people actually listen to these? I'm not even sure.
SF I don't think so. Have we started yet? Is this the actual take?
SS This is the rehearsal.
SF Oh good.

Friday, August 04, 2017

A Ghost Story in Sight & Sound

Think of a ghost. What do you see? The first image that comes to mind may be a floating white sheet in the vague outline of a person, with two holes cut out for its eyes. Ghosts in this form were popularised in the 19th century, the idea being that apparitions of the dead would reappear wrapped in their burial shrouds, but in time this representation has become hackneyed, more readily associated with childlike and comic characters than anything truly haunting. While some films, such as Finisterrae (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), use the sheet trick in imaginative and unsettling ways, in our cultural memories it's more likely to evoke the unconvincing ghost disguise in Beetlejuice (1988), the trick-or-treating party in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Charlie Brown's botched costume in the Halloween TV special It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966).

Director David Lowery has been thinking about ghosts for a long time. When he made his first film at the age of seven, his brother wore a bedsheet to play a ghost, and in his animated short My Daily Routine (2011) a ghost again appears in the same guise. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day bring this idea to fruition in a feature. “It's something that has long been a fascination of mine, and the idea of doing a haunted house movie with somebody wearing a sheet was something I thought of a couple of years ago,” he says. “I thought it would be really funny to make a straight-up horror film, a very traditional horror film like Poltergeist [1982], but have the ghost constantly be represented by somebody in a sheet, and always visible. That idea was just something that amused me when I'd think about it from time to time.”

Read the rest of my interview with David Lowery in the September 2017 issue of Sight & Sound