Stanley Kubrick’s Top Ten

The mad genius.

In 1963, Stanley Kubrick took the time to compile a list of his top ten favorite movies. Here it is for your pleasure.

10. HELL’S ANGELS (1930) – Dir. Howard Hughes

09. ROXIE HART (1942) – Dir. William A. Wellman

08. THE BANK DICK (1940) – Dir. Edward F. Cline

07. LA NOTTE (1960) – Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni

06. HENRY V (1944) – Dir. Laurence Olivier

05. CITY LIGHTS (1931) – Dir. Charles Chaplin

04. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) – Dir. John Huston

03. CITIZEN KANE (1941) – Dir. Orson Welles

02. WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) – Dir. Ingmar Bergman

01. I VITELLONI (1953) – Dir. Federico Fellini

Now get yer asses out to the video store and rent those you haven’t seen!

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Kurt Russell & Crappy Dialogue in “Star Wars”

Just a taste of what the original “Star Wars” could’ve become had Kurt Russell been cast and George Lucas been allowed to keep his crappy dialogue.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nix_PID3oiA&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]

You can read the entirety of George Lucas’ first draft of Star Wars here at Drew’s Script-O-Rama. Be forewarned – it’s awful!

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The UP Dream Theory

by Joe Pudas

***SPOILER ALERT*** (This article contains spoilers for the film Up throughout. Just FYI.)

If Pixar was an individual director, we would consider it to be one of the greatest auteurs of contemporary cinema. Excusing Cars, Pixar has had a remarkable track record any director would envy, and for the past few years, they actually seem to have been making movies primarily for adults. I now anticipate Pixar films nearly as much as new releases from Scorsese, Tarantino, and the rest of them. While Ratatouille is easily my favorite of the bunch, Pixar’s latest, Up, ranks a close second. I consider it a masterpiece, an absolutely worthy nominee for Best Picture.

But as a story, does it follow the rules of the world it creates?

I didn’t consider this when I first saw Up in theaters. It floored me both times I saw it (once in 3D), even the second time when I was purposefully scouring for problems. The closest thing I had to a complaint was something like, “Dogs flying planes … that’s kind of fanciful.” Fellow ATA blogger Michael Neelsen also loved it, but after seeing it, he posed a few questions that led to a discussion that ended up formulating the Up dream theory.

The first act of Up is amazing: it covers more ground and produces more heartbreak than most whole films do. If the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together doesn’t emotionally destroy you (or at least faintly tug at your heartstrings), you don’t have a soul. Then we catch up to the present and learn of Carl’s current struggle with the construction crews who continue developing everywhere around his house. After one of the crewmen accidentally damages Carl’s mailbox, Carl reacts furiously and becomes involved in an altercation with another worker. This albeit minor burst of violence threatens to ruin what’s left of Carl’s life, as the courts declare him a public menace and force him to relocate to a nursing home.

These scenes, despite a few unlikely flourishes (i.e. the balloons lifting the cart off the ground), take place entirely in the real world. Carl’s sweet childhood romance with Ellie, their life together, and Carl’s relocation from his home could all exist within our reality. In fact, that’s probably why it works on us so effortlessly – we’re not used to a mainstream animated film representing the world we live in without some kind of a fantastical bent. Both times I saw the film, the audience loudly gasped when they saw that Carl had drawn blood when he struck the construction worker. It even smears realistically.

And then he’s whisked off to court and stripped of his home, his final possession. Wait a minute … are you sure this is a Pixar movie? Because this is the kind of cripplingly depressing shit that usually happens in something like Dancer in the Dark. When is the last time a Disney movie dealt with nursing homes and infertility? Whoa, that’s heavy (as Marty McFly would say). Twenty minutes in and you’re drained.

But once the nursing home employees arrive to collect Carl, Up subtly morphs into a completely different movie. The previously established rules of the world are totally thrown out the window of Carl’s house. From this point on, Up is every bit the far-fetched, often cartoonish adventure we were expecting. Carl flies around in his house, discovers and interacts with a mythical bird creature, encounters “talking” dogs, has an extended fistfight on the top of a flying zeppelin, and so on.

Consider the following bullet points:

–       Muntz looks to be at least in his thirties when Carl is six or seven. This would require him to be close to, if not more than, 100 years old when Carl arrives at Paradise Falls. Save for the back-creaking joke during their eventual fistfight, Muntz’s movements/gesticulations are more consistent with those of a younger man. Even if they were not, Muntz looks to be around the same age as Carl. This would make sense in the context of dream logic, but it’s extremely far-fetched and inconsistent with the real world established in the first act.

–       Picture the dogs from the newsreel scene at the beginning of the movie. There are about, let’s say, twelve of them there. This is when Carl is between six and eight years old. Sixty, seventy, eighty years later when he’s on his adventure in the floating house and discovers Muntz and his dogs, there are still only roughly a dozen of them. This is odd. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows they have a life span of roughly ten or so years, so this would logically be at least five or six generations of dogs later that we’re seeing when Carl discovers Muntz at Paradise Falls. But if that’s true, that means they’ve been breeding, yet we never meet a dog with a female voice. Or see any puppies. Also, dogs breed in litters, so their numbers should have exponentially grown over the generations. But what does Carl in fact find? Roughly a dozen dogs, all full-grown, all speaking with male voices, and looking strikingly similar to the dogs that Muntz originally left with seventy or so years prior. This would make sense in dream logic, but not reality.

–       This film follows the same basic structure as The Wizard of Oz without implying that Carl is dreaming. It is almost as if they crafted the story to be dependent upon dream logic, then yanked the dream element out and figured no one would notice.

–       If flying in their house was an option, why did Carl wait until after Ellie’s death to do so? It’s the kind of desperate action Carl would be more likely to take while she was still alive, perhaps even on her deathbed.

From a screenwriting perspective, Up may be guilty of breaking its own rules. The world of the first act is blatantly not the same world in the second and third acts. They overlap but they do not connect. If the rules of the second and third act applied to the first, Carl and Ellie would have lived their lives in Paradise Falls. Where other films might have tried to ease the transition by showing Carl developing the technology and/or gathering the balloons at some point, Up doesn’t bother. For all we know, Carl pulled tens of thousands of balloons out of his ass overnight. In the context of the film, this works wonderfully because it blindsides us with that triumphant moment, transporting us from despair to elation in nearly a split second.

Instead of asking ourselves, “Wait, how the hell did he manage that?” we are thinking something more along the lines of, “Holy shit! A flying house? That would be so baller!” It is also, for Carl, a beautifully executed fuck-you to the world. It is sweeping and grand – the moment we’ve been waiting for from the advertisements – and since it’s in an animated film presumably for children, it isn’t jarring.

But shouldn’t it be? Wouldn’t any live-action film doing this get criticized for violating the rules of its world? I don’t have a good answer for that. But here Up is the second animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture: not only is the Academy treating it as a great film, but they are extending it an honor never afforded to 99% of other similarly acclaimed animated movies.

However, the Up dream theory solves this problem. Unfortunately, it is much, much darker – it asserts that Carl merely dreamt up his floating house and ensuing adventures in South America. In reality, Carl either dies or moves to the nursing home to live out the rest of his days. The second and third acts constitute his wildly imaginative dream (that also happens to follow pristine, McKee-approved story structure). To quote Twin Peaks, what is a dream but a subconscious catalogue of the day’s events? In Carl’s dream, he triumphantly escapes the reality of his life by using the tools of his trade (balloons), and his imagination integrates the little boy he just met and his lifelong idol into the narrative.

Everything in Carl’s dream builds on details from his life. As a boy, he loved the Spotlight on Adventure movie he saw about Charles Muntz and his dogs. In his dream, he assigns the dogs collars that can read and blurt out their thoughts. The mythical bird Muntz searched for factors substantially into the dream’s narrative as well. Russell becomes the son he was unable to have with Ellie. Carl not only meets his idol, he discovers he is a better person, and ends up with Muntz’s badass zeppelin (which will allow for more reliable mobility for future adventures). In his dream, the house even lands smack dab next to Paradise Falls like Ellie always wanted.

Do I think the movie is better or worse with the dream theory applied to it? Neither, really, but the dream theory eliminates a lot of sticking points. If Pete Docter and his co-writer/director Bob Peterson had explicitly implied it was a dream, Up might have been too similar to The Wizard of Oz, something the filmmakers consciously tried to avoid. Also, if Carl were indeed dreaming, why wouldn’t he incorporate Ellie as a living being into it? Maybe he was too used to her being dead, but that’s not a satisfactory answer. Since I don’t think Docter and Peterson are even hinting that it’s a dream, the dream theory is purely conjecture and it doesn’t completely add up (For the record, ATA blogger Michael Neelsen believes that the only way the movie works is when you accept the dream theory, and that the filmmakers intended it as such).

But without the dream theory, Up leaves at least some of us scratching our heads. The only unanswered question that truly bothers me is one of logic: if Carl had the capability to fly in his house to South America, why didn’t he do that while Ellie was still alive? Robert McKee stresses that sometimes, if there’s a hole in your story but everything else works perfectly, you just have to ignore the hole. Is that what happened here? If the flying house was so important, and the power of its reveal was dependent on grounding the world of the story in our reality, maybe Docter and Peterson figured if they just glossed over the hole, we would too. Seven hundred million dollars and five Oscar nominations later, they may have been right.

What do you think?

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The Myth of Objective Film Criticism

Anton Ego in Pixar’s “Ratatouille”

by Michael Neelsen

What makes a good film? What makes a bad film? Is there an objective way of determining the aesthetic, emotional, or social merits of a given movie? I won’t pretend these are new questions – they’ve been asked for as long as cinema has existed, and many people have come up with many different answers (even amongst your humble ATA bloggers!).

My answer is a resounding no. Cinema is art, and art is subjective. What may be one of the best films I’ve ever seen could be considered worthless crap by others (The Fountain). What I may think is one of the most awful loads of bull ever dished out to movie-going audiences may be thought of as an inviting escape into fantasy for others (Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen). And that is okay. We should have different opinions. That’s what makes this fun. Even film critic Roger Ebert told ATA blogger Joe Pudas in his interview that film criticism “has to be first person subjective. It’s not a science, it’s an art.”

However, there are those who believe that there is no debate over whether or not a particular movie is good or bad, just over whether or not you liked it. For example, “There is no debate over whether or not The Godfather is a good film. It is a good film. Whether or not you liked it is your opinion.”

But isn’t the concept of “good” subjective? And if that’s true, what is the purpose of film criticism to begin with? What can a film critic offer to the world besides one more opinion? Perhaps nothing. Or, perhaps a film critic can offer a particularly educated and unique perspective, delving deeper into analyzing the film than your average Joe. Or maybe a critic is literally there just to provoke us all with polarizing opinions that keep us all debating movies forever.

Now let’s take this to the next level. If you buy into the concept that there is no such thing as an objectively good film, how do you feel about awards? More specifically, the Academy Awards? Does winning an Oscar mean anything beyond simply that at that given moment you were “most liked” by Hollywood’s elite? When Crash wins Best Picture, should we all pencil in our books that it truly was the best movie of 2005? I think most of you will agree with me that we should not, unless we agree with the Academy’s opinion.

As a filmmaker, I always used to dream of one day hearing my name called by some megastar and ascending the steps at the Academy Awards to accept my Oscar in front of the nation. I’d fantasized a dozen different speeches, I’m sure. If you ever wanted to make movies, you’ve had this same fantasy many times, discussed it with friends and family, made countless promises to people that you would not forget to thank them on national television, etc.

But why should we yearn for such a thing? Why strive for it? It’s completely out of your control and means nothing if you win it. It doesn’t even guarantee more work or funding for your next project.

What about top ten lists? All film geeks construct them. We spend hours, upon hours tallied up over years building lists of what we feel are the Top Ten Best Movies of All Time. But they’re never the same. And isn’t that the point? We want our friends to have different lists so we can read them, scoff, and scream in their face, “What the crud is Total Recall doing on your list?” But why are we always surprised when our friends have lists that we don’t agree with? And if we’re not surprised, and we know all along that we will never reach a consensus on which ten films truly are the best of all time, what’s the point of constructing the list to begin with?

This may all seem rather elementary, but the problem is that too many people have actually bought into the idea that film criticism can be objective. When Paul Thomas Anderson first walked into a film class, he heard the instructor say, “If you’re here to make the next Terminator 2, you may as well leave now.” PTA left immediately, because he was just as disgusted by that comment as I hope you are right now. Terminator 2 is a badass movie. Why the hell is Potemkin considered to be better? Because it’s harder to watch, and if you make it through you feel like you accomplished something?

The only thing you can possibly objectively rate about a movie is whether or not it works. Does the filmmaker harness the power of cinema? Did he establish the characters well? Did he transition between acts gracefully? Is the cinematography allowing us to see what we need to? Does the plot make sense given the world the filmmakers have established? If these things fall into place, the film isn’t good… it works. At the risk of citing a painfully obvious example, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will works like a charm. It completely paints Hitler as a national and world hero/savior. But is it a good movie?

And if a film doesn’t really work, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. In Superman, our caped hero flies around the globe at a speed that actually reverses the direction of the earth’s rotation, turning back time. Then, when he’s saved everyone, he goes really fast in the other direction, reversing the rotation of the earth again, supposedly bringing time back up to where it started. Yeah… no. That can’t happen. Reversing the rotation of the earth doesn’t send you backwards or forwards through time. This doesn’t work. But many would still consider Superman a classic. Others may not.

Here’s the deal: There is no objective way to watch movies. Never will be. There is no such thing as a good film or a bad film. There is no such thing as a Top Ten Best Films list, only a Top Ten Favorite Films list, meaning nobody ever has any ground to be offended by someone else’s list, because it’s not claiming authority over you in its title. The concept of awarding a Best Picture award is ludicrous, and the award would inherently mean more to the recipient if it were instead called the “We Like You” award.

And if you disagree with this post – you’re freakin’ WRONG. ;)

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Quentin Tarantino and the Art of Performance

But what I really want to do is act!

by Michael Neelsen

From when he was a very young boy, Quentin Jerome Tarantino wanted to perform. In a now infamous 1994 appearance on the Charlie Rose show, Tarantino said “I always knew movies were written, but I didn’t know what a director was. My parents said ‘He’s gonna be a director someday,’ but I didn’t know what that was. I wanted to be an actor.”

This desire has manifested itself in Tarantino casting himself in bit parts in three of his movies – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Death Proof – as well as films by other directors – From Dusk Till Dawn, Destiny Turns on the Radio, Little Nicky, and Girl 6.

It has also influenced the kinds of films he makes. Consider his entire filmography for a moment. What features bind them all together? What’s the through line? Obviously, he deals almost exclusively in crime films, and much has been made of his consistent writing of strong female characters. How about what the late great David Carradine said on the set of Kill Bill: “The essence of a Tarantino movie is not the violence, not the action, it’s the inside look at the mind, the heart, of violent people.” Sure, that’s also part of it. Of course, there’s also the common cynical assertion that he does nothing more than rip off old movies no one has ever seen before and string them together again with slicker cameras.

But more than any of that, I submit to you, dear readers, that the constant through line – the eternal theme that QT has put into his entire oeuvre – is a study of performance. Quentin Tarantino makes movies about acting.

Nearly every story Tarantino has ever written has been centered around a performance.

In Reservoir Dogs, it’s all about a group of criminals trying to figure out who among them is working with the LAPD. An undercover cop has to be a great actor, and Tarantino goes to great lengths to drive this point home to us as we spend a number of scenes around the cop as he practices his monologue, builds his character, and studies his method. He even has an acting teacher who tells him that the only way to become a great actor is to memorize his lines so he can fill in the details on his own.

In Jackie Brown, my personal favorite of his catalogue and one of my top ten favorite films of all time, the story centers around a smooth flight attendant who plays two different groups of people against each other in a royal cinematic game of chess. She pretends to be on the side of the criminals when she’s around Ordell and Louis, but when she’s around the cops she’s the complete opposite, offering up just enough information to keep them where she wants ‘em. She’s performing the entire movie! The only time she comes off stage is when she’s with bail bondsman Max Cherry, which is what makes those scenes particularly moving (she goes from one extreme, acting, to another extreme, brute honesty in a discussion about getting old.).

In Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s Bride character is putting on a performance for Bill by brutally killing every one of his surrogates one by one from the lowliest to the top dogs. Think about this: Why didn’t the Bride kill Bill first? She could’ve just gone straight at Bill and killed him before anyone else, but she wanted to make him sweat. So she made a list of people to kill and knocked them off one by one, even going so far as to leave some underlings alive with messages to make sure Bill’s got the story straight.

She tells Julie Dreyfus’ character that she’s only leaving her alive “so you can tell him [Bill] in person everything that happened here tonight. I want him to witness the extent of my mercy by witnessing your deformed body. I want you to tell him all the information you just told me. I want him to know what I know. I want him to know I want him to know. And I want them all to know they’ll all soon be as dead as O-Ren.”

The first half of Death Proof is all about Stuntman Mike meeting this group of Austin chicks and joking, laughing and dancing with them until he kills them with his 1970 Dodge Challenger. Stuntman Mike enjoys spending time pretending to be a cool guy and getting all the attention. If he didn’t enjoy it and literally just wanted to kill them, there would be no reason for him not to just wait outside in his car for the girls to leave and then kill them the exact same way he eventually does, without any interactions in the bar. But he has fun putting on a show, pretending to be someone he’s not… and isn’t this the essence of acting?

Finally we come to Inglourious Basterds, which is the absolute epitome of Tarantino’s acting theme. Every single character throughout the film is putting on a performance at one point or another. Col. Hans Landa performs his roles fluently in four different languages, using them to his advantage in any number of situations from the very first scene in which he pretends that his visit is merely a formality when he knows the LaPedites are sheltering Jews.

In the forest interrogation scene, Aldo Raine interrogates the first Nazi knowing full well he’s not going to give up the German position. But he goes through the motions anyway so that he can call out Sgt. Donny Donowitz a.k.a. “The Bear Jew” so he can beat him senseless with a Louisville Slugger. They even give Donowitz a staged, grand entrance complete with cheers and applause.

In the La Louisianne scene, Lt. Hicox, Sgt. Stiglitz and Cpl. Wicki all pretend to be Nazis and Bridget von Hammersmark pretends to be an ally of the Germans. In the final act at the cinema, Aldo Raine, Sgt. Donowitz and Pfc. Ulmer all put on horrific Italian accents in an effort to pass as ambassadors from Mussolini. Hans Landa pretends to be protecting Hitler and Goebbels while he is really ensuring their demise.

In fact, the only movie in Tarantino’s filmography that I struggle to correlate to this theory is Pulp Fiction, interestingly enough. I did consider the date scene between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace, but I’m not sure. Maybe the scene at Mia’s house when she’s following Vincent around with the security cameras, watching him… but Vincent isn’t really performing for the cameras. Or what about Butch! He’s asked to perform by Marcellus Wallace when he’s paid to throw the fight, but he doesn’t follow through. He rejects performance. Perhaps my theory doesn’t work for Pulp. What do you think? Comment below.

Whether it is the heart and soul of what makes a Tarantino movie a Tarantino movie or just another element that contributes towards a greater sum is up for debate, but I do believe that Quentin is fascinated by the art of performance and it is an aspect of his work not explored nearly enough. Chime in with your thoughts!

Editor’s Note: If you’re a fan of QT and haven’t visited Sebastian Haselbeck’s fan site “The Quentin Tarantino Archives” (I hesitate at even calling it a fan site as it’s so much more), you absolutely must. Also created by Seb, you should check out “The Spaghetti Western Database”, which Quentin himself has proclaimed his favorite website.

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Scorsese’s Favorite Films

Martin Scorsese may be the most fascinating individual I’ve ever heard talk about cinema in my life. Luckily, there is a large supply of video available in which he does exactly that – talk – about movies. Here is a short one separated into three clips. For more stuff like this, check out the two seminal documentaries A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TJKf70Tpfc&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT76ZRBEW2k&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpHAQOUERLQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

Also, here is a list from Listology of Martin Scorsese’s Top Twenty Favorite Films:

20. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Paradjanov, 1964)

19. Senso (Visconti, 1954)

18. Satyricon (Fellini, 1969)

17. The River (Renoir, 1951)

16. Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964)

15. The Last Emperor (Bertolucci, 1987)

14. In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)

13. Gate of Hell (Kinugasa, 1953)

12. Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972)

11. Contempt (Godard, 1963)

10. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

9. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen, 1952)

8. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)

7. The Red Shoes (Powell, 1948)

6. Phantom of the Opera (Lubin, 1943)

5. Moby Dick (Huston, 1956)

4. Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1946)

3. Invaders from Mars (Menzies, 1953)

2. Duel in the Sun (Vidor, 1946)

1. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975)

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Being On Set with Martin Scorsese

Michael Nie (right) gives soft sticks in front of Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”

by Michael Neelsen

Michael Nie has been one of my best friends for many years, ever since we worked on an independent feature together in Madison, Wisconsin in early 2004. More recently, he has worked on a myriad of major film productions, including Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, Michael Bay’s The Island, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. In 2008, however, Mike experienced the dream of every young boy and girl who dreams of one day making movies. He got to work on a Martin Scorsese picture – this week’s Shutter Island.

Mike was kind enough to share his memories and what he learned on the set with us and all of you here at ATA.

First of all, for all our readers out there trying to get gigs on a Scorsese movie, how in the hell did you get the opportunity to work on Shutter Island?

My involvement on Shutter Island was the result of quality relationships I had established, my status as a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and good timing.  If one of these elements was missing, I would not have found myself on the set of a Martin Scorsese film in the Spring of 2008.  The relationships I speak of harken back to the fall of 2004, when I started work as the assistant to the director of photography on Michael Bay’s The Island.  It was then that I was introduced to the first assistant on the “A” camera and the Panavision prep tech for the film.  I kept in touch with both of them over the next several years, and once I joined the union, worked with them periodically.  At the start of 2008, I was in search of my next project.  I caught wind that the first assistant from The Island was hired by Bob Richardson on Shutter Island.  The prep tech from The Island was now the “A” camera second assistant on Shutter Island.  I knew them both.  I was looking for work and when I called, it turned out they were looking for an additional camera assistant.  I boarded a plane for Boston, and so my work began on Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese in his “black russian ushanka” and “black wool trenchcoat.”

What was it like the first time you saw Martin Scorsese in person?

Epic.  My first day on set, the company was on location, shooting an exterior flashback sequence involving a hoard of prisoners and a firing squad.  It was cold.  I could barely feel my toes and there was ice on the slate.  I first met Bob Richardson, perched atop a camera dolly on 200 feet of track.  With no sign of Martin Scorsese, I remember rolling the camera on several takes.  There was an enclosed tent where video village had been set up.  It wasn’t until the assistant director called cut on the final take that I saw Scorsese for the first time.  With his signature glasses fogged over, he emerged from the tent wearing a black russian ushanka, a black wool trenchcoat, and black shoes.  It was as though a general had emerged to survey the battlefield in winter during World War II.  A historic moment, no doubt.

Does Marty sit by the camera near the actors during takes or does he stay back by the monitors?

You will always find Martin Scorsese glued to his monitor at video village while the camera is rolling.  It is worth noting that Scorsese often shoots with a single camera.  His singular focus is on the performance that plays out on the frame in front of him.  His time in front of the monitor allows him to evaluate all aspects of a given shot.

Did you get a chance to see him direct the actors? What is his method with them as you could observe it?

His time with the actors is spent during very long, private rehearsals.  By the time camera rehearsals occur, the actors are extremely prepared.  Scorsese will give small notes to an actor while the crew is present, but if there are any substantial adjustments, the crew is excused for a short private rehearsal.  The assistant director serves as the channel of communication for the crew.

Your boss on the film was two-time Academy Award winning Director of Photography Robert Richardson (JFK, Kill Bill, The Aviator, Inglourious Basterds). What is he like?

With the demeanor of a mad scientist, Robert Richardson is a genius in the world of cinematography.  The man knows his craft.  His work speaks for itself.  Richardson is in constant communication with members of the camera, grip, and lighting crews via a one-way transmitter dubbed the “Bob Comm.”  Often demanding, he produces exceptional results.

How does Marty direct his cinematographer?

Bob Richardson and Martin Scorsese have a unique relationship.  They have collaborated on several projects in the past.  Like any member of the cast, Richardson is prepped thoroughly by Scorsese before either of them arrive on set.  They are on the same page from the out set and much goes unsaid.  As with any director/cinematographer relationship however, there has to be a channel of communication on set.  Because Scorsese is glued to his monitor and Richardson is glued to his camera, the assistant director is the go-between.  If Bob Richardson did not operate his own camera, I would suspect that he would join Scorsese at his private video village.

Did you have any personal interaction with Marty?

No.  The only individuals to interact with Martin Scorsese on set are the assistant director, cinematographer, script supervisor, and Scorsese’s assistants.  Occasionally, he would have a discussion with one of the producers or his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

How did your perspective on Scorsese change through working on one of his films?

Martin Scorsese is a human being like you or I, yet he is certainly unique in his own right.  I imagine I would have said the same about Albert Einstein.  More than anything, I would say that Scorsese lived up to my expectations.  My perception did not change so much as it was confirmed.  When it comes to the craft of filmmaking, Scorsese IS a genius.

You told me earlier that editor Thelma Schoonmaker made an appearance on set – what was your impression of her and Marty’s relationship?

Having met at NYU, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker have worked together for over 35-years.  Their relationship is one of mutual respect.  They are similar in the way they work and I have the sense that each person often knows what the other is thinking.

Tell me about the experience working so closely to the cast with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow.

The cast of Shutter Island is perhaps the most talented cast I have ever encountered.  Each member that you mention brought vastly different backgrounds to the project and had much to contribute to each of their characters.  Aside from their work on the film, they all were extremely gracious as individuals.  They were all are very approachable and good conversationalists.  I am honored to have worked with each of them.

Describe your average day on set.

 

In my hotel room, my alarm would go off before sunrise each morning.  I would check the weather report and dress accordingly.  Shortly thereafter, I boarded a van full of sleepy crew members that drove us to the set.  After a quick stop at catering for breakfast, I would meet the crew at the camera truck.  We would unload our equipment and arrive on set in time for a blocking rehearsal of the first scene that day.  Following the blocking rehearsal, the actors would head to the make-up and hair trailers while we would build the cameras and lighting took place.  When lighting was finished, the actors would return the set and we would run a camera rehearsal.  Once all the elements were in place, Martin Scorsese would arrive and we would roll cameras.  When we had the shot that Scorsese was happy with, he would return to his trailer and the whole process would happen all over again.  At the six hour mark, we would break for a half-hour lunch.  Our days would average about twelve hours.  At the end of the day, we would break down the cameras, load the truck, and catch a van back to the hotel.  Often very tired, I would find myself asleep an hour or two after getting off work.

If you could sum up your experience on Shutter Island into a few sentences, what would you say?

Shutter Island is perhaps the most difficult yet most rewarding experience I have ever had on a film set.  The story largely takes place during a hurricane, and there was plenty of water, wind, and debris employed to simulate that phenomenon.  The making of this film was not for the faint-hearted.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

What, in a nutshell, did you learn about the craft of cinema through your experiences working on a Martin Scorsese picture?

Many talented and creative filmmakers are required to tackle a project of this nature.  While a visionary director is essential in telling an inventive and compelling tale, the contributions of the cast and crew are equally important.  Hundreds of decisions are made each day by members of the filmmaking family that affect the outcome of the picture.

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Vintage 1998 Paul Thomas Anderson Conversation

This is another film gem online that I’ve enjoyed watching many times. Listen as arguably the most talented filmmaker of the American Independent Movement of the 1990’s eats pizza and talks about the craft. Enjoy!

Editor’s Note: I should probably mention that the content of this interview is definitely NSFW and extremely vulgar. Topics range from his films Hard Eight and Boogie Nights to the San Fernando porn industry with plenty of F bombs dropped in between. It’s still a fantastic interview! Just FYI.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPrMhLycYSQ&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BM_wyZ-u_Q&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

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Is A SERIOUS MAN the Weirdest Movie Ever Nominated for Best Picture?

Michael Stuhlbarg dealing with a lot of tsuris in “A Serious Man”

by Joe Pudas

***SPOILER ALERT*** (This article contains spoilers for the film “A Serious Man” throughout. Just FYI.)

Despite my initial hesitation, I now wholeheartedly embrace the Academy’s controversial decision to nominate five additional films for Best Picture. This expansion clearly benefited movies like “Up” and “District 9,” popular summer hits that otherwise wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of breaking into the Oscar race. Yes, I’m still rolling my eyes about “The Blind Side” being included amongst the year’s best, but there’s always at least one shitty movie that burrows its way into the running (I have more of a problem when the black sheep actually wins – “Crash” winning in 2006 was especially painful).

But as cool as it was to see something as grungy and genre-specific as “District 9” snag a nomination, I wasn’t shocked. After all, that was the purpose of the expansion, was it not? 2008 was a particularly weak year, so when “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” were snubbed while lukewarm December Oscar bait like “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” were feted instead, everyone bitched. Basically, the Academy miffed an opportunity to attract more viewers and discredited itself by obstinately failing to recognize two of the year’s best movies. When the expansion was announced early in 2009, it seemed drastic and reactionary. If 2009 was anything like 2008, there might not even be ten movies worth nominating for anything.

Fortunately, 2009 was a markedly better year for cinema (at least in my opinion). I can’t finalize my top ten list until “The White Ribbon” finally comes to my area, but half of the films nominated for Best Picture are on it. Two of the more Oscar bait-y winter movies – “The Road” and “Invictus” – did not make the Academy’s cut. That’s a step in the right direction. This is a strong crop of nominees, but none of them really surprise me.

Except for “A Serious Man.”

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the hell out of “A Serious Man.” While it barely missed my top ten, it was absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year. I don’t think it reaches the heights of “No Country For Old Men,” which everyone and their brother agrees is a masterpiece, but it’s one of the Coen brothers’ best movies yet – loony, unpredictable, hilarious, stylish, full of cynical wit. It garnered mostly praise from critics, did fairly modest art-house business, and will most likely gain a cult following on DVD and Blu-Ray. Many pundits correctly predicted it would be one of the ten Oscar nominees, but I would have bet the house against it. I thought a playfully dark little oddity like “A Serious Man” had no chance when placed against more straightforward films like “Invictus” and “Crazy Heart.” Once proven wrong, I was – and still am – completely shocked. Is this the weirdest movie ever nominated for Best Picture?

I rented “A Serious Man” last week and re-watched it on Blu Ray (it’s a gorgeous transfer, by the way), thinking it might seem less weird and/or more accessible. It is my pleasure to report that it played just as weird and nebulous as I had remembered. This is one of the Coen brothers’ strangest films, and they’ve made some of the most peculiar, offbeat cinema of our generation. I know the Coens have officially become Oscar darlings after “No Country For Old Men,” but that film, for all its nihilism and its refusal to play out expectedly, is also a rip-roaring crime thriller complete with a MacGuffin (the same goes for “Fargo”). This is a relentlessly skeptical, bitterly funny movie drenched in Jewish humor and culture about a put-upon man who never discovers why his life has unraveled. No thriller backdrop, no colorful villain, no MacGuffin – unless you consider the “meaning of life” a MacGuffin. Just a crisis of faith and a fruitless search for answers that ends vaguely. That sounds more like a Palme D’Or winner or an Independent Spirit Award nominee than a Best Picture contender.

What I love most about “A Serious Man” is how unabashedly Coen-esque it is. After the critical success of “No Country For Old Men” and the stellar financial performance of “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers could pretty much do whatever they wanted. I knew we were in for an outlandish flick when the trailer first came out. It was artful, repetitive, and a little bit creepy, scoring its footage to the insistent sound of Michael Stuhlbarg’s head being repeatedly smashed into a blackboard.

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“A Serious Man” indeed lives up to its trailer. The Coen brothers set the tone with an amusing prologue in which a Yiddish couple contemplates whether or not a visitor is a ghost (or dybbuk). We are first prompted to believe that he is a ghost, then it is suggested he may not be, and by the time Jefferson Airplane is blaring over the opening credits, we can’t be sure either way. The film leaps ahead to 1967 and never references the opening scene, although its ambiguity is reflected in everything that subsequently transpires.

As I interpret it, the only two events that will have any lasting impact beyond the film occur right in the beginning and just before the end. Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) gets a check-up at the doctor’s office and will have to await test results. His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is unable to pay a classmate named Fagel for some weed he’d purchased from him because of complications involving the confiscation of his Walkman. These events are deliberately intercut and will be paid off in the last sequence of the film: Larry, having essentially solved all of his other problems, receives uncertain but ominous news about his test results; and Danny, having resolved his various issues, prepares to pay Fagel back just as a tornado rages toward him.

Larry’s doctor’s appointment is never referenced again and we are made to forget about it once the film’s central developments start to kick in. Conversely, Danny’s minor debt to Fagel is constantly mentioned and reiterated. When the end credits roll, Larry must face his presumably negative prognosis and eventual death, while Danny, just as he’s about to reach his film-long goal of paying Fagel back, stares down a tornado that will most likely engulf and kill him like he’s Cary Elwes in “Twister.” Along the way, the Coens guide us through a series of absurd misadventures steeped in Jewish culture, trippy dream sequences, and copious pot smoke. These are not the hallmarks of a traditional Oscar hopeful.

“And this proves we don’t really know about anything.”

I found the key scene of “A Serious Man” to be the first dream sequence, in which Larry finishes writing out the mathematical formula to the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle on a comically oversized blackboard. He finishes his work, the Coens cut to an extreme wide shot that emphasizes how huge the blackboard is, and he exasperatedly exclaims, “This proves that we don’t really know about anything.” This is a man who is a physics professor – more specifically, a man whose life has been spent studying and teaching the math behind existence (the “music of the spheres” as Patton Oswalt would say). Even though Larry is better equipped intellectually to explain the mysteries of life through tangible mathematics, he is just as unable to determine the meaning of anything as the rest of us.

But throughout the film, he seeks answers. Desperately. Why is his wife suddenly leaving him for a touchy-feely mutual friend? How is he supposed to handle a tricky bribe situation involving a failing student? When and how can he persuade the wise old Rabbi Marshak to see him? If we take the Jewish proverb that opens the film’s prologue – “receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” – to heart, it seems the Coens are suggesting that Larry’s quest is futile because certain, irrefutable answers to life’s great mysteries are impossible. The best we can do is accept them and move on, not spin our wheels puzzling over the “meanings” behind them. Larry’s biggest problem ends up being his health, the one thing he wasn’t sweating. Danny thinks his biggest problem is his failure to pay Fagel back, but the oncoming storm that appears like a deus ex machina from Hashem becomes his chief priority instantaneously.

What happened after Richard Kind tried to solicit a prostitute.

The most striking element of “A Serious Man” for me was the Coens’ manipulative management of expectations. On more than one occasion, the Coens deliberately set up a situation so that we anticipate its result, only to pull the rug out from us. When the police first visit Larry’s house in order to investigate his brother Arthur’s (Richard Kind) illegal gambling manual, we expect to see them again. The second time, when they are taking Arthur into custody, Larry and we assume it’s because of his gambling scheme; but it is for attempted solicitation of a prostitute – something we were completed unprepared for. Here’s another example: throughout the first half of the film, Larry receives what he thinks are important phone calls from Danny, only to find out Danny’s just pissing and moaning because his favorite TV show’s reception is fuzzy. But at one point when he receives yet another one of Danny’s calls, he and we assume it must be about the TV reception, but instead Danny is calling to tell Larry to come home because his mother is upset (over Sy Ableman’s sudden death).

“A Serious Man” is rife with uncertainty in nearly every scene. The increasingly violent nightmares that assault Larry in the second half are first easy to distinguish from reality, but they become subtler and start to last longer before jarring us “awake” with something that is clearly running on dream logic. Larry’s boss frequently drops by to reassure him that he will probably make tenure, but his tentative body language suggests otherwise. We never learn who was writing the eloquent letters denigrating Larry to the tenure board; Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that Sy Ableman had been writing letters to the board, but it isn’t clear that he’s the slanderous culprit. Sy had already succeeded in smoothly spiriting Judith away without incurring criticism from the community or resistance from Larry, so what purpose would he have to compromise Larry’s tenure?

And so it goes throughout the film. We expect a severely pot-addled Danny to fuck up his Hebrew recitation at his bar mitzvah, but he is able to power through it with a helpful nudge from the rabbi. We expect Larry to get in his hot neighbor’s pants, but instead they smoke pot and spend a lazy afternoon together before Arthur arrives back at the house in handcuffs for his sexual transgressions. We expect some kind of violence or at least lasting unpleasantness from Larry’s other, hostile neighbor, but that only occurs as a non sequitur in Larry’s final nightmare. When Larry finally seeks the simplest solution to solve his problems – taking the student’s bribe money to pay for Arthur’s legal bills and avoid blackmail – he immediately receives the dire phone call from his doctor. The doctor’s phone call and the impending tornado both represent life’s next problems for Larry and Danny, and they appear so fatal and insurmountable that every other obstacle we’ve watched them overcome suddenly seem puny and insignificant.

What are we to make of this curious film? I found it pessimistic, essentially modifying the old adage “life sucks and then you die” into “life sucks, you’ll never know why, and then you die.” Not exactly triumph-of-the-human-spirit material. Some have found it to be an optimistic dramatization of Occam’s Razor in everyday life, demonstrating that the simplest answer is usually the best. That would explain the point behind the story of the goy’s teeth, one of the film’s funnier sequences: don’t fret over the how and why behind the message, just heed its advice (“helping others couldn’t hurt”). I get that perspective, but then again, this is a movie that consists almost entirely of a likable guy getting shit on by the world. What happens the moment he takes action to better his situation? He receives foreboding news about his health and a metaphorical storm cloud prepares to gobble up his son. The end. That’s all, folks!

Anyway, whether you love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, you have to admit that “A Serious Man” is a bizarre piece of work. When is the last time something even remotely this eccentric and unusual has been nominated for Best Picture? I have no answer for that.

And I guess what I’m saying is, I like that quite a bit. I like that something as atypical and idiosyncratic as “A Serious Man” is getting Oscar attention. The Academy may have primarily intended to expand the Best Picture category to include summer blockbusters, but now they’ve ended up unexpectedly honoring a truly unique, challenging film that would never have made the cut otherwise. Will this trend continue in years to come? It’s very uncertain, but for now, I’m feeling hopeful about the future of the Oscars.

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Scorsese Directs Hitchcock

This video is a couple of years old, but I still absolutely love it. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. Scorsese directs a “lost” Hitchcock script entitled The Key to Reserva.

So sit back, get your popcorn ready, click here and enjoy the show!

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