Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Ham Sandwich isn't what it used to be.

The world is a different place since Hitchcock either did or didn't come up with the idea of the Ham Sandwich (if you don't know what I'm talking about, read my last post).

Hitchcock died in 1980; VHS (a video recording format using tape, for those of you too young to remember) wasn't introduced in the US until 1977. What that means is that Hitchcock made his films for a world that couldn't rewind them to take another look at something.

More critical, people couldn't collect movies and watch them at their leisure. If people wanted to see a movie, they went down to the one movie theater in town and saw the one film that was playing. Period. Except at Christmas time, when 'Miracle on 34th Street' and 'It's a Wonderful Life' got broadcast on that newfangled contraption, television, most movies played in theaters and were more or less forgotten. Or remembered. But never really shown over and over again.

Today, as just about every media outlet enthusiastically exclaims, we live in a world of digital media. Technology has given us not only the ability to collect movies, but to realistically make them ourselves. It's also given us access to myriad channels to find stuff to watch. Not just everything that's being made, from the $200 million studio epic to the latest video of a dog sending a text message, but everything that's ever been made –– good stuff and crap –– all the way back to the first film ever made of a dog sending a telegraph.

What that means for you, Aspiring Filmmaker, is that you're going to have to work a lot harder to get –– and keep –– your audience's attention than Mr. Hitchcock ever did.

In the old days, a gaping hole in the plot might cause people to walk out of the theater, grumbling that they'd wasted 99¢. Today, it'll cause them to click over to something else, grumbling that they'd wasted, well, 99¢.

See how far we've come?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jason Statham could use a decent Ham Sandwich.

I just rented the latest in the 'Transporter' series, which should put to rest any notion that I'm some kind of a film snob. I can't help but like Jason Statham, even though he's made an entire career as an actor –– movie star, really –– without ever once cracking a smile.

This is, of course, a blog dedicated to lessons in filmmaking and the lesson I want to deal with today is internal consistency. Or to put it in simple terms, The Ham Sandwich.

The Ham Sandwich is capitalized because it's a concept I learned about in film school. The notion was attributed by my professor to Alfred Hitchcock, although a quick Google search didn't bring up any relevant hits. So take it as an idea that may or may not have come from Hitchcock, by way of a teacher whose name I can't remember.

Enough premumble. The story, as I heard it, was that Hitchcock screened his latest masterpiece only to have somebody point out a logical flaw in the story. Hitchcock told him (or her, who knows?) that it was okay because it was a Ham Sandwich. The idea being that sure, it was a flaw, but it was the kind of flaw audiences wouldn't notice while they were watching the film. It was only later, while they were eating a ham sandwich, that the flaw would become apparent.

Which brings me to 'Transporter 3'. Frank Martin is coerced into transporting Valentina, the minister's daughter who's been kidnapped. He doesn't know she's been kidnapped, but she does. And she doesn't tell him until 3/4 of the way through the film, even though they exchange not only conversation, but bodily fluids.

My point is this: There are two flaws in the story. (Okay, there are a lot of flaws in the story, but I'm only going to talk about two of them.) The first is that a kidnapped minister's daughter needs to be transported in the first place, the second is that a kidnapped minister's daughter wouldn't think to mention to the guy who's clearly been coerced into transporting her against his will that she, too, has not chosen to be put in this situation.

The first flaw is excusable because, well, it's called 'Transporter'. I'd allow that to be a Ham Sandwich. The second flaw is a hole. A big fat hole. The kind of hole that doesn't wait until after the film to present itself to you.

I'm okay with a Ham Sandwich. Where I draw the line is with stuff that takes you out of the experience of the film.

No wonder Jason never smiles.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Children and dogs need to be shot.

I directed a job last week that was a recipe for disaster: two eight-year-olds, one 12-month-old, a model, and a dog. To make it even more complicated, we had to shoot outside, and even though it's summer, the light was likely to change without warning.

What motivates an eight-year-old is a lot different from what motivates a professional grown up actor. You can't expect to appeal to an eight-year-old's artistic sensibilities, need to make the mortgage payment, or desire to help you do your job. You might be able to cajole a grown up into giving you one more take, but when eight-year-old is done, you're done.

A 12-month-old is an even bigger wild card. Their entire motivation comes down to two simple rules: 1) good things make them happy, bad things make them sad, and 2) they go from happy to sad a lot quicker than they go from sad to happy.

Usually worse are models. Models generally have a different approach to being in front of a camera than actors do. They are trained to move and settle, whereas actors move through actions. Most models I've worked with are so controlled that they're boring to watch move, even though they might take a great picture.

Of all the non-adult performers, I expected the dog to be the most reliable. Which she was. But even so, a dog is not a person and even the best trained dog with the easiest temperament can get set off by certain smells or sounds.

I've been doing this long enough to learn a few things that helped me avert disaster.

1) I schedule my day around my toddler. Babies take naps. Babies are also subject to a lot of legal (and common sense) restrictions in terms of how long you can work with them and how many breaks they need. I want my toddler to be done shooting a half an hour before his nap time.

Before I got into directing, I was an advertising copywriter. I went on a lot of shoots involving kids. And I'm astonished how few directors I worked with –– and I'm talking a lot of A-list guys –– even bothered to ask when the baby's nap times were. They were so concerned about taking the most advantage of the light that a lot of times we ended up with a well-lit monster.

2) I create a shot priority list. Once you lose an eight-year-old, you're not getting him or her back, so I figure out what shots I absolutely must have and get those first.

After having taken care of the kids, I schedule the rest of my day. I'm usually pretty prepared anyway, but when I have a situation as touchy as this one, my shot list looks like it was prepared by the GAO. I have columns for angles, lenses, actions, actors, and extra stuff to be prepared for. Because there's usually no going back to pick up something once you're done.

3) No matter how tight the schedule is, I build in time to establish and maintain a rapport with the kids. Eight-year-olds are more sensitive than grown ups. You can't expect them to understand that you need to move on. And if you hurt their feelings, you're going to spend more time reassuring them than you would have spent talking to them between takes and developing a relationship with them in the first place.

4) I communicate. Before we even set up the first shot, I gather my entire cast (minus the toddler, who has a later call) and explain what I hope to accomplish. I used kid-friendly language so that the eight-year-olds know what I hope to get from them, but in this case I was actually aiming my talk at a couple of the adults –– particularly the model –– because I knew I was going to need them to loosen up if I were going to get anything usable from them.

5) I encourage a relationship between the adult cast members and the kids. If you'd been at the casting session, you would probably have wondered why I spent more time talking to the actors than asking them to perform. What I was doing was looking for was people who would not only look the part and perform well, but also develop a relationship with their "kids" even when the camera wasn't rolling.

6) I pay attention to the dog when it first comes onto the set. Dogs suss out new environments and you can tell a lot by how it checks out its surroundings. If I notice that the dog's ears are back, it's crouching, or it has its tail is between its legs, everything stops until we figure out what's wrong.

We got lucky on this job, but to quote Edna Mode from 'The Incredibles', "Fortune favors the prepared." The footage looks great, the client is happy, and I can cash my check with a clear conscience.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ron Howard could teach us all a thing or two. But he won't.


I'm going to pretend 'The DaVinci Code' never happened. That film is such a mess, I could teach an entire course on really bad directing, using it as the only example.


Ron Howard's done other, less stinky films. But even though most of them range from pretty decent to fairly good, I always leave the theater scratching my head. Something always seems to be missing.


It wasn't until I saw 'Frost/Nixon' that I put my finger on it: A theme.


The theme of a film is its lesson. Love is better than money. Crime doesn't pay. Be careful what you wish for. That sort of thing. It's the ultimate truth that the audience (and usually the protagonist) learns just before the credits roll.


I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, I don't want to teach a lesson. I just want to entertain."


Well, grow up.


Expressing a theme isn't teaching a lesson. It's preaching to the choir. When a film contains "a heartfelt message about the power of love," do you really think people who don't believe love is powerful walk out of the theater with their minds changed?


As much as I complain about Spielberg, this is his genius. Sure, he's heavy-handed. Sure, his characters are often one-dimensional. But his themes? It's like the guy is illegally wiretapping the American psyche. He knows what people want to hear better than they know themselves.


But enough about Spielberg. Let's talk about Ron Howard. Specifically, 'Frost/Nixon'.


The movie’s got a bunch of potential themes:


Good triumphs over evil.

Greed corrupts.

Youth and audacity can beat seasoned and cynical.

Do your homework.

The future is inevitable.


A good storyteller could have taken any one of them and spun an interesting tale. For my money, I would like to have seen ‘Frost/Nixon’ borrow one of Spielberg’s favorites –– it’s better to be American.


Structurally, 'Frost/Nixon' is a fight film. You've got the president –– the most quintessentially American possible –– in the ring against a foreign guy who talks funny. But there's a twist. Said president did a bunch of shit that’s totally un-American, while Frost, on the other hand, turns out to be the poster boy for freedom of speech, dressing in flashy clothes, talking loudly, having huge ambitions, and boffing beautiful women. The only thing that would have made him more "American" is if he shot moose from a helicopter and called it sport.


A role reversal. And it's Frost's "American-ness" that starts off looking like a weakness, but is ultimately responsible for his success.


What did we get instead? I'm not entirely sure. At the end of the film, Ron has Nixon, defeated, confessing to Frost that he doesn’t like people. Which tells me (and you, even if you don't realize it) that that's the lesson the film is meant to impart. People who like people are better than people who don’t.


Hmm.


Okay. That can be its theme. Except for two problems. One, a theme needs to be established, developed, and resolved. And two, really? That’s the great truth you want your protagonist and your audience to come away with?


Come on, Ron. You can do better than that.


Monday, July 13, 2009

What's so funny about wide angle lenses?

Wide angle lenses are funny.

This is one of those rules you need to learn not because it's true, but because I guarantee you, someday when you're shooting a serious scene and you ask your DP to put up the 10mm, you're going to be invited to explain why.

It's one of those rules that a lot of people know. And it's wrong.

Okay, it's not entirely wrong. It's partly true. Wide angle lenses distort –– stuff close to the lens looks bigger than stuff farther away. (If you're having a hard time picturing what I'm talking about, take a look in the side mirror of your car. A convex mirror creates the same effect.)

The idea is that the subject looks ridiculous and ridiculous is funny.

If you want to break it down, it's just an element of film grammar. Shooting a person up close with a wide-angle lens is shorthand. It tells the audience to expect to laugh, in the same way that an ooompah tuba playing underneath your scene does.

That's not necessarily wrong, in and of itself. The problem is that too many directors rely on wide angle lenses to try and make something funny when it's not.

So am I saying not to use wide angle lenses? Of course not. I use them all the time, especially in my still work, which by the way is not funny at all. (See for yourself at
http://www.elixirlens.com.)

But if you think a different lens is going to save a lackluster performance of mediocre material, you might as well be Michael Bay.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 4): A worthy adversary

Let's say you're single-mindedly determined to accomplish something and what you want and what you need are potentially at odds. Are you an interesting protagonist?

Not yet.

You're missing one critical thing that makes your story interesting. Difficulty.

Without difficulty, you're not accomplishing something, you're just doing it. And who wants to watch you do something you're perfectly capable of doing?

Not me.

The tougher the struggle, the more interesting the story. In other words, as determined as the protagonist is to succeed, the antagonist needs to be even moreso to make the protagonist fail.

That's not to say that the antagonist has to spend every minute devising ways to thwart the protagonist. In fact, a super powerful antagonist doesn't even need to try. In 'Finding Nemo', the antagonist is the ocean. It's so vast and powerful that it doesn't even need to be aware of a little clown fish trying to find its son.

In films where a hero faces an actual enemy, the enemy needs to be stronger than the hero. And not just stronger. You want your hero to be up against somebody so powerful, so experienced, with so many more resources and so few scruples about destroying the good guy that you wonder how your hero is ever going to survive, much less triumph.

Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, for example. Or Harry Potter against Valdemort.

The more unlikely your hero is to emerge victorious, the more satisfying the story is when he does.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, if my antagonist is unassailable, how can my protagonist ever win?"

Good question. There are two answers. One is what's called "deus ex machina," which is a fancy way of saying "Wow! That sure was lucky!" Remember 'War of the Worlds'? Not the original, but Steven Spielberg's 2005 turd?

The other answer is for what appears to be the hero's weakness to become the very strength that vanquishes the antagonist.

That same formula is at work in both 'The Bad News Bears' and 'Life is Beautiful'. And yes, I know how weird that sounds.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's not a symphony if you only play one note.

I just rented 'Reservation Road'.

Bo-ring.

You'd think the story would have affected me. It's about a guy whose kid is accidentally killed by another guy. I have kids. I should care.

I didn't. There are plenty of reasons why I didn't, but the one that I feel like blathering on about today is the acting. 

Not that the acting was bad. It just didn't go anywhere. Mark Ruffalo, playing the guy who kills the kid, goes from being contrite in one scene to being contrite in the next. I'm not a huge fan of Mark Ruffalo, but he did a decent job with it. 

Same goes for all the leads. Four of Hollywood's most lauded actors, each of whom played the same emotion for the entire film. The only one that seemed to progress at all was Joaquin Phoenix's character, who goes from angry to vengeful. 

Ooh! Such a huge range. 

If you can play a spectacular F# on the bassoon, good for you. But don't make me listen to 102 minutes of it.