Friday, February 26, 2010

Is Hollywood the next Detroit?

An ad agency art director I know recently booked his first job in Argentina. He's having such a good experience that he wonders whether domestic film production –– like lots of other American industries –– is destined for oblivion, a victim of offshoring.

This question seems to come up every time somebody shoots their first production overseas –– and I mean always. Even back in 1992, when I shot my first overseas job, the old-timers rolled their eyes at my naive enthusiasm for the experience.

Back in 1992, the US dollar was incredibly strong. And even though a lot of productions took advantage of the bargains available, it wasn't tax incentives that kept the production communities in Hollywood and New York viable. Didn't hurt, of course, but there are plenty of other reasons people will pay a premium to shoot there.

1) The language barrier. You're not going to find an abundance of talented American-sounding performers. So if you have on-camera dialogue, you still have to cast in the States and travel them. (You can find actors who can sound American in Canada, of course –– arguably more than you can find in parts of LA.) This goes beyond actors, by the way. As a director, I need to be able to communicate seamlessly with my DP, Wardrobe, Makeup, Art Department, AD, and production team. I'm fortunate in that I speak Spanish, which makes working in a lot of places easier for me.

2) The look barrier. Sure, people in other countries can often look American. (The last time I was in Switzerland, I was stunned by how much more American they looked than Americans.) But that's just the white people. if you're looking for ethnic diversity, you might not find what you need. We couldn't find black people in any great numbers in Argentina. And there aren't a ton of Mexicans in Canada.

3) The look barrier, part 2. I once shot a job in Mallorca, part of which needed to look like an American suburb. How hard could that be, right? Turns out there's one house on the entire island that would play. We scouted Barcelona, too, to see if we could find other options there. Nothing. Thank God for the one house and some creative angles.

4) Believable performances. Most American directors don't speak Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Bulgarian, or Russian; most Argentine, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, Czech, Bulgarian, and Russian actors don't speak English. It's funny how being able to communicate directly with your actors generally results in a better performance.

5) A dearth of equipment. Sure, you can find most of what you need, but if you get into specialized stuff, you have to bring it in.

6) Travel costs. This applies to commercials more than films. For a four-day shoot or more, it can be very economical, but when you're talking a one- or two-day job, your travel costs become disproportionate to your overall budget.

7) Fear. I can't believe how difficult it can be to convince a lot of the people who have to okay your decisions that the world beyond our borders is "civilized."

8) Convenience. For clients or investors with other things to deal with than the masterpiece you're working on, getting on a plane for nine hours is a deal-killer. Hell, it's hard to convince some people to seriously consider taking a 2 1/2 commuter flight to Portland, Oregon, where the costs are lower, the crews are extraordinary, the talent pool is extensive, and the native population speaks English.

9) The US dollar. Right now it's ridiculously low. I can still get a bargain when I take productions to certain parts of Canada, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, etc., but frankly, I save almost as much by shooting in Portland and by the way, I get to ride my bike to the set.

8) Habit. Same thing that keeps ad agencies and studios shooting with (INSSERT DIFFICULT A-LIST DIRECTOR'S NAME HERE), even though they could get a much better piece, and have a much more pleasant experience, trying out someone less famous and more enthusiastic.

10) Specific issues with regard to look. Sure, you can bring in light switches, bathroom fixtures, elevator buttons, traffic signs, electrical outlets, appliances, license plates, all the things that are subtle giveaways that the piece you're looking at isn't quite American, but I once had a box of T-shirts held by Canadian customs for eight months because they were convinced I was importing them for resale. You really want to take that chance?

11) Efficiency of production. Yep, there are great crews and production teams everywhere in the world. But you can't touch the depth, knowledge, efficiency, and speed of the teams in Hollywood and New York.

12) Insurance. If your camera goes down in Hollywood, you can have another one on your set in the time it takes to drive from point A to point B. Sure, with traffic that can be more than an hour. But try that in most of the other destinations we like to shoot in. And then think about your more specialized stuff, which there might be one of in the entire country, with no backup to be had at any price.

13) Extensive secondary resources. Hollywood and New York have entire ecosystems dedicated to the stuff that we're familiar with. Any craft service person knows to put a plastic tub of Twizzlers on the table. Any hair stylist knows what a flat-top looks like. And any wardrobe person understands the subtle distinctions between a Patagonia jacket and a Columbia Sportswear one. Sure, a breakfast burrito isn't a reason, in itself, to keep productions in Hollywood. But the little things add up.

14) Stupid bureaucrats with weapons. I've had more than my share of arguments with armed airport personnel who insisted that my cans of film were not going to cross their border until each one was opened up and inspected by hand. Even in the age of digital production, there are still plenty of opportunities for some low-level bureaucrat to exert power in a way that costs you tens of thousands of dollars.

15) Hidden costs. In lots of places around the world, an outstretched hand isn't an offer to shake. And I'm not just talking about guys with leaf blowers who show up as soon as the camera truck pulls to a stop. In Morocco, for instance, it was amazing how many people claimed to be the king's brother-in-law.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but these are the ones that came to mind immediately. Anybody care to add to the list?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I could use your help.

I just finished building the prototype of a camera rig and I probably ought to consider filing for a patent on the thing. If you know any good (preferably inexpensive) patent attorneys, would you mind passing their info along to me?


Monday, February 15, 2010

I'm actually going to say something nice about 'The Time Traveler's Wife'.

I just rented 'The Time Traveler's Wife', or rather, my wife did. It's not the kind of title that tends to appeal to me –– it sounds like a chick flick –– and while some chick flicks are actually good ('Bridget Jones' Diary' comes to mind, but if you tell my wife I said that, I'll deny it), most drive down the same deeply rutted path of "woman-remarkable-only-because-she's-played-by-attractive-movie-star-survives-misplaced-affection-for-cad-only-to-find-true-love-with-secret-prince/millionaire-who-ultimately-spurns-all-others-and-declares-undying-love-for-her-because-she's-distinguished-by-being-the-story's-protagonist."

Which in its defense, this film didn't. Instead, we have a creepy story about a middle-aged man who over the course of years brainwashes an impressionable girl into thinking he's the love of her life. Or maybe I'm just sensitive because I have a daughter.


The film had some huge problems (your five-year-old daughter unintentionally travels through time and space, landing buck naked God-knows-where-and-when and you're okay with it because she tells you she's "learning to control it?"). Okay, I am sensitive. There are other problems, too, and if you want I'll go into them, but that's not what I'm here to write about today.

I'm here to write about how the film actually managed to succeed in one small way. One performance really sticks out. It's a scene between Eric Bana –– who plays Henry, the guy who inadvertently travels through time –– and Michelle Nolden, who plays Henry's long dead mother.

He follows her onto the subway, stares at her for a while, and then tells her he loves her.

Michelle Nolden nails this scene.

What makes her performance so good is that it's so right. Henry's mom is a singer, and she has no idea that the guy she's talking to is her grown-up son, come back in time to try and assuage his guilt over her impending death. As far as she knows, she's being hit on by some good-looking guy her age, admired by an adoring fan, or accosted by a deranged stranger. She plays it with just the right level of appreciation, caution, and weirded-outness. When she delivers "I'm glad I met you, too," the amount of insincerity in her voice is just perfect.

And she gets huge bonus points because Eric Bana isn't much help. He plods through the lines opposite her without any focus at all.

I'm cringing as I write this, but I'm going to say it anyway: Rent the film. Just fast forward about 27 1/2 minutes in and watch the train scene. Then turn it off and put on something decent.

Even if it is a chick flick.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Today is my birthday. And my gift to you is enlightenment.

I was making breakfast for the kids the other day and I had an epiphany. A real, live zen koan kind of epiphany.

You know the age-old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" I know the answer.


Ready for this? The egg is the chicken.

Think about it. If you like it, pass it on. The world could use a little more enlightenment.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Do I owe Quentin Tarantino an apology or is it the other way around?

You don't read all the blogs I write. I never get around to posting a lot of them. Like the one I wrote last week, skewering Quentin Tarantino for the opening scene of 'Inglourious Basterds'.

After I wrote the blog, I gave the opening scene some thought. And I came to realize that I might have been overreacting. In fact, I might have been wrong. So I took another look at 'Inglourious Basterds' (Sorry, Nora, but I couldn't bring myself to give 'Julie and Julia' a second chance.)

Turns out, there are some fine aspects to 'Inglourious Basterds'. Some of the performances are unexpected and refreshing. One shot in particular is magnificent. And Tarantino did a really good job creating a believable place and time.

On the other hand, I'm disappointed in the story. The premise has so much promise –– a renegade group of Jews who slip behind enemy lines to kill Nazis. And yet none of the promise is realized. The only way we know these guys are Jews is because Tarantino tells us they are. They don't act like Jews, particularly. You could have substituted "vegetarians" or "plumbers" in describing them and none of the dialogue or action would have had to be changed.

As for the structure, Tarantino has a propensity for avoiding the single protagonist, which is fine. That's his deal. But both Lt. Aldo Raine (played, astonishingly badly, by Brad Pitt) and Shoshana (played astonishingly well by Mélanie Laurent) are pursuing the same goal. Structurally, that means that either of them can fail and yet still succeed.

Kind of hard to feel that there's a lot of stake there.

Sure enough, hi-jinx ensue. But the stuff that Tarantino spends so much time and effort crafting doesn't so much move the story forward as serve to show how clever he is. The Jews posing as Italians are caught out not able to speak Italian! And in a movie theater crammed fully of Nazis, no less. How funny! The Nazi Jew-hunter plays a courteous guest in the home of the French farmer sheltering Jews! How long can he keep up the excruciating facade?

It's almost like watching a prequel to 'Hogans Heroes', which if you're too young to remember the show, was a sitcom that took place in a Nazi concentration camp, complete with a lovable, bumbling guard and clever Americans who ran the resistance from behind the barbed wire and just around the corner from the gas chamber and no, I'm not making this up.

Tarantino was nominated for a DGA award, which I'm glad to say he didn't win. But he's also been nominated for an Oscar.

An Academy Award.

The best director –– if you ask me –– is not only the person who makes every aspect of the piece as good as it can be (and that means getting Brad Pitt to learn his lines so he can actually deliver them believably), but also makes the piece appropriate to the subject.

I'm not saying you can't make a comedy about Nazis killing Jews or vice-versa. As a matter of fact, I happen to think 'Life is Beautiful' is one of the greatest films I've seen. What I'm saying is that 'Inglourious Basterds' is a silly little comedy without the depth, pathos, or even character development of 'Dumb and Dumber'. It's a third-grade T-ball champion stepping up to the plate at Fenway and, knowing that he can't even swing at a pitch, deciding to entertain the crowd with a goofy dance.

Tarantino does a lot of things well. And I'd rather sit through any of his films than one of Nora Ephron's. But is this truly Oscar material?


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If you're thirsty, I'm buying.

Just a reminder that tonight is the night I'll be at the Sapphire Hotel in Southeast Portland, sharing my good fortune in winning the Northwest Filmmakers Night. I'll be there around six, and the first $200 worth of drinks are on me.

The Sapphire Hotel is at Southeast 50th and Hawthorne. If you're in the area, please stop by.