Spielberg on style.

The Lubitsch Touch.

From 'Paris Review'. An interview with Billy Wilder.

You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. How Would Lubitsch do it?
When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, if I got stopped in the middle of a scene, I’d think, How would Lubitsch do it?
Well, how did he do it?
One example I can give you of Lubitsch’s thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy that Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commissar, and we were wondering how we could dramatize that she, without wanting to, was falling in love. How could we do it? Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really greatidea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
I’ve got the answer, he said. It’s the hat.
The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?
He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter is about to carry her things from the train. She asks, Why would you want to carry these? Aren’t you ashamed? He says, It depends on the tip. She says, You should be ashamed. It’s undignified for a man to carry someone else’s things. I’ll carry them myself.
At the Ritz Hotel, where the three other commissars are staying, there’s a long corridor of windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, “That is ludicrous. How can a civilization of people that put things like that on their head survive?” Later she plans to see the sights of Paris—the Louvre, the Alexandre III Bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she’ll visit the electricity works, the factories, gathering practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvyn Douglas, all sorts of little things that add up, but we haven’t seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room overlooking the Place Vendôme. It’s beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They’re finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, “No, no, no, it’s too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don’t you go to the races. It’s Sunday. It’s beautiful in Longchamps,” and she gives them money to gamble.
As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That’s it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we’re going from there . . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. “Beautiful weather. Why don’t you go have yourselves a wonderful day?”
He returned from the bathroom with all this?
 Yes, and it was like that whenever we were stuck. I guess now I feel he didn’t go often enough.


On Adaptation

Well, usually it’s the novel that’s adapted. The novel, unfortunately, is not a good form to adapt to film because the question of the novel is it’s usually much, much, much too long with too many characters, too many parts. The short story is the natural narrative, linear narrative to become a film. Many, many short stories have become films.With a novel, what I can recommend is when you first read the novel, put good notes in it the first time, right on the book, write down everything you feel, underline every sensation that you felt was strong. Those first notes are very valuable. Then, when you finish the book, you will see that some pages are filled with underlined notes and some are blank.
In theatre, there’s something called a prompt book. The prompt book is what the stage manager has, usually a loose-leaf book with all the lighting cues. I make a prompt book out of the novel. In other words, I break the novel, and I glue the pages in a loose-leaf, usually with the square cutout so I can see both sides.
I have that big book with the notes I took, and then I go and I put lots more observations and notes. Then I begin to go through that and summarize the part that I thought was useful. And quite naturally you’ll see that the parts fall away, or that you have too many characters, so you know that you have to eliminate some or combine some. Working on it this way, from the outside in, being more specific as to what you think… then when you finish that, you are qualified perhaps to try to write a draft based on that notebook.
In the case of “The Godfather” I did that, and although I had a screenplay, I never used it. I always used to take that big notebook around with me, and I made the movie from that notebook. In the case of “Apocalypse,” there was a script written by the great John Milius, but, I must say, what I really made the film from was the little green copy of Heart of Darkness that I had done all those lines in. Whenever I would do a scene, I would check that and see what can I give the movie from Conrad.

Coppola on Theme.

When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality.The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. All day long: Do you want it to be long hair or short hair? Do you want a dress or pants? Do you want a beard or no beard? There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you.

I remember in “The Conversation,” they brought all these coats to me, and they said: Do you want him to look like a detective, Humphrey Bogart? Do you want him to look like a blah blah blah. I didn’t know, and said the theme is ‘privacy’ and chose the plastic coat you could see through. So knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.


Abandoned Mansions


Auteur Theory

Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.

- Billy Wilder

As seen on a media job website...

"i am looking for an Editor to take a look at my screen play and fix all of my spelling and grammr mistakes and also gving some feed back. i have looking to get it publish and also hope to get it filmed in the summer time. you will have credit as editor and/or writter. Some pay."


The Hobbit. Story and HFR

I finally had a chance to drag myself away from work and parenting to go and see a film in the theatre. As a screenwriting teacher I always find it important to go see current films so I can have a reference point for the students. As much as I would love to discuss 'The Godfather' or 'The Third Man' most of my students haven't seen these films so I am just gratifying myself. I know, as film students you would think they would have embraced these films with curiosity and excitement. It does make me wonder why they are going to study film when they have no idea of the history of film. Then I have to remind myself that some are as young as seventeen and eighteen years old. That is not a lot of time to have a well rounded film education (and a reason they have come to film school, to learn). But I digress.

I went to see 'The Hobbit' in the new HFR (High Frame Rate) and I found it a very interesting experience. There are plenty of blowhards all over the internet that have dismissed this 48 frame per second format comparing it to Masterpiece Theatre, Theme Parks and Monday Night Football. Vincent Laforet wrote a whole piece as to why this format has failed in it's infancy. Stu Maschwitz at Prolost just posted a link to a video where he declares 24 frames per second essential. A bit arrogant. Vincent Laforet's scientific evidence is that he enjoyed the film much more in 2d 24fps than in the HFR format. I'll come back to this in a minute.

First, the film. I quite enjoyed 'The Hobbit' but it takes over an hour to get going. The reason for this is twofold. First, as the first film in a much longer narrative the first act is jam packed with character introductions and excessive amounts of exposition. There is a big story to set up here and it takes a while. 'The Lord of the Rings' also has a long first act but there is more tension and a simpler idea at play. Frodo has Bilbo's ring and he is to take it to the Inn to meet Gandolf. The first goal is simple and it get's complicated by Gandolf's imprisonment and the Nazgûl hunting Frodo and his companions. Characters are introduced slowly along this journey and we slip into the story comfortably. The stakes are incredibly high as well as we understand the importance of this ring, not only to the characters of the story, but to the entire Middle Earth. The first act of 'Fellowship of the Ring' ends an hour and a half into the story with Frodo submitting to carrying the ring and joining in the journey to destroy it.

This brings me to the second point. Frodo has to carry the ring. It is too powerful for his 'corruptible' companions to carry. They will succumb to it's power. Frodo, being a pure and good Hobbit, must carry the ring or all is lost. There is no going back. In 'The Hobbit' Bilbo's need to join in the fight is much weaker. This isn't to say that he has no motivation to join the Dwarves on their quest but it is far less of a necessity than it is for Frodo. In turn this makes the first act lag as it doesn't have the same imperative as in 'The Fellowship'. What happens to Bilbo if he doesn't join? Nothing. What happens if Frodo doesn't join? The corruption of man and eternal darkness. Not to mention that the Nazgûl are on the trail of "Baggins" and "Shire". If Frodo stays he will surely be killed. The stakes are high off the top and there is much more tension in 'The Fellowship'. Once the story picks up in the second act and the goals become clearer, 'The Hobbit' does a great job of finding it's legs and getting the audience involved. Even Bilbo's extended interaction with Gollum is riveting (and looked great in HFR).

So back to the HFR. Laforet says that he was more into the story in the 2d version and I believe him. I found the HFR version distracting as well because I was so aware of the new format that I was constantly thinking about it. It's a brand new format for God's sake. How can a filmmaker go into it without being distracted by the high speed format? We are painfully aware of the format and we are distracting ourselves by over analyzing it. This isn't the fault of the format but of the viewer trying to make sense of the format. Imagine the movie audiences when they first saw colour film? Or heard a synchronized sound track. When the 'Jazz Singer' came out they called sound films a fad! Knee jerk reactions.

Did I like the HFR 3d format? I'm not sure. Under certain lighting conditions I thought that it was very beautiful and engaging. At times I found the 3d to be more distracting as there seemed to be a lack of middle ground. There would be an actor in 3d separated by what seemed to be a totally flat background. No depth between the subject and the flattened background. At times it did feel a lot like video, especially in the Shire. I wonder if they were learning how to shoot with the HFR format while they were shooting. They are doing a research and development project after all. How did cinematographers and production designers adjust to colour film? Black and white films were about texture  and gradients while a colour film is a different beast altogether. Colour film didn't need the same kind of design as there were three separate colour layers that provided a lot more information and a different kind of texture. The question for the filmmakers was how to best use the format? Does low key lighting work better than high key lighting?

On top of this is the cameras themselves. How does the Red's own digital acquisition affect this? All cameras have different characteristics so how do you determine how much of the look is being affected by the sensor of the camera. The Alexa has a different feel than the Red camera as HD Cam has a different look than the Panavision Genesis. CCD versus CMOS. How does this have an effect on the HFR image? We don't know yet.

I do prefer a 2d image to 3d still. The current filmmakers are doing an interesting job of experimenting with the format but it seems to lend itself to a certain kind of film that is designed for it. 'Avatar' and 'Prometheus' worked very well with the 3d format. What is strange about 'The Hobbit' and the other 'Lord of the Rings' films is, ironically, their sense of realism. They sucked us into this world and made it feel real and dramatic. I wonder if 3d films work better when you want the hyper realism. Watching the HFR version I thought that it would work better in James Cameron's highly stylized world of Avatar. When you are trying to show a version of 'our' world in a realistic way 3d seems to diminish it. What I loved about the original films was that they did feel realistic, dramatic and horrific. Peter Jackson has done a great job of making us believe in this world and HFR 3d might work against it. I'm not sure that this is a product of the high frame rate or the 3d or the combination of both. I kept trying to take off my glasses to see the image in 2d with no luck. And there were moments especially in the third act where I thought it worked wonderfully. Even in Christopher Nolan's Batman series he has tried to create a three dimensional character out of a comic book character and adding a three dimensional treatment to the film itself would take it out of that realism and put it into the world of hyper realism. It works against the idea that he is trying to make Batman a dramatic action thriller as opposed to a fun action adventure. This is where Jackson is left in terms of the tone of his films. Is he wanting to make a fun action adventure or a dramatic action thriller? The first three films felt like the latter. This tonal shift is also what turned older audiences away from the Star Wars prequels. A film like 'Empire Strikes Back' has the weight of drama and the prequels have the weight of a fun adventure. Oddly enough, the series was inspired by the silly cliffhangers Lucas adored as a kid. There is a very real need to balance the tone of the movies and it appears that the format you choose can greatly affect that tone.

At the end of the day a filmmaker is left with choice. You choose your colour palette. You choose your lighting scheme. You choose to shoot your widescreen 1.77 to 1, 1.85 to 1 or 2.35 to 1 (or Imax if you are Christopher Nolan). Now you can choose your frame rate. The exciting part of the digital world is you can choose to vary that frame rate. If close-ups and certain lighting setups don't feel right you can shoot it at 24 frames and then shoot your vistas and other elements that work great at 48 frames. In the end it's more choice and I think it's awesome that Peter Jackson decided to jump in and do the hard work for the rest of us. This pioneering spirit is what moves the technology forward and I think it's ignorant to dismiss something before you really see what it can do for you. As Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds". I'm always surprised how many small minds there are out there.