Tuesday, September 27, 2016

William Cameron Menzies: A Production Designer Who Has Gone with the Wind

When we think about the landmark film production of Gone With the Wind, most of us conjure up images of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniels. If we’re up on film history, we remember the film’s imperious producer, David O. Selznick, as well as a revolving cast of directors that included George Cukor and Victor Fleming. But the name William Cameron Menzies doesn’t readily spring to mind. My colleague Jim Curtis’s exhaustively researched 2015 book, William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, aims to change all that.

Menzies began his career as an art director at the tail-end of the silent era. On such early sound films as 1933’s all-star Alice in Wonderland and the futuristic 1936 Things to Come, he used his artistic talents not only to plan appropriate settings but also to lay out camera moves and action sequences. Through volumes of elaborate sketches that are the forerunners of today’s storyboards, he conceptualized the visual aspects of many productions. He himself described his mandate: “As a production designer, it is my job to dramatize the mood of a picture and to keep it ‘in character.’ This is done simply by coordinating every phase of the production not covered by dialogue and action of the players.” 

That, of course, was a huge responsibility, and Menzies’ family life inevitably suffered. Still, those in the know fully recognized his genius. Selznick insisted he be part of the Gone With the Wind team, and later granted him the brand-new “production designed by” credit to reflect the broad scope of his services. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not recognize the title of production designer when it came to handing out Oscars. That’s why the art direction Oscar for Gone With the Wind (one of eight won by the film) went solely to Lyle R. Wheeler. Happily, at the Oscar ceremony Menzies was awarded a special plaque recognizing his “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood” in the film. (He had earlier nabbed a competitive Oscar for the 1928 silent, Tempest, but won no awards in his later career, which ended with an associate producer credit on 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days.)

The Academy’s recognition of Menzies’ work on Gone With the Wind focused on his pioneering use of color. For instance, he deliberately chose severe red skies & indigo backings” to punch up somber scenes like the burning of Atlanta. When it came to filming the moment in which Melanie gives birth, the challenge was to suggest the anguish of the experience while not running afoul of the MPAA’s Breen office, which frowned on depicting outright pain and suffering. Menzies’ solution was to choose angles “of stark black and sharp, knifelike patterns of yellow, no light falling on the shutters or the human figures in the foreground, simply a white backing reflecting the colored glare of flood lamps through the slits.” He intuited that orange was a hot color, while black could suggest violence. The combination of the two colors suggested both a steamy afternoon and the violence of childbirth.

Menzies’ contributions to Gone With the Wind also included the iconic use of a (fake) tree in the foreground to add drama to the shot of Gerald O’Hara showing his daughter the land that is her birthright. When he needed towering shadows of Leigh and de Havilland, he got the effect by using doubles who were required to move in unison with the two actresses in the foreground of the shot. Who knew?  

Speaking of Atlanta, I encourage all working writers and journalists to be aware of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ regional conference in that fair city on Saturday, November 5. There’ll be loads of practical info on how to further your career. Early bird sign-up rates end soon. Here’s the link. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Curtis Hanson: An L.A. (and Roger Corman) Story

With the passing of Curtis Hanson, we’ve lost another great director. He recently died in his Hollywood Hills home at the all-too-early age of 71. Hanson is best known for directing 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a film noir thriller based on James Ellroy’s novel exploring police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1950.  Hanson called L.A. Confidential his most personal project, because Ellroy was “telling a story set in the same city that I grew up in and dovetails with certain ambitions that I’ve had in terms of telling an L.A. story.” L.A. Confidential  would be nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Kim Basinger won an supporting actress Oscar for her femme fatale role, and another went to Hanson, along with Brian Helgeland, for their adapted screenplay. Too bad the film was up against Titanic.

Before he took the helm of L.A. Confidential, Hanson had directed such successful nail-biters as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994). He also succeeded with Wonder Boys (2000, based on Michael Chabon’s novel of academic life), and the surprisingly appealing 8 Mile (2002), about the rise of rapper Eminem. Though Hanson could delve into a female relationship story (In Her Shoes, 2005), his natural bent seemed to be toward the dark and violent side of life. That’s hardly surprising: he emerged (like Titanic’s James Cameron and so many more of Hollywood’s rising directors) from the colorfully grim world of Roger Corman.

Hanson first came to the attention of my former boss in 1970 when he wrote the screenplay for The Dunwich Horror. This variation on a supernatural tale by H.P. Lovecraft was directed by longtime Corman art director Dan Haller for Corman’s former movie home, American International Pictures. (Corman himself served as executive producer.) This was the era when Corman was moving into his own company, New World Pictures. Hanson wrote and directed for Roger a 1972 film called Sweet Kill. IMDB describes this as “the story of a psychotic maniac who literally ‘loves’ women to death.” But despite the lurid subject matter, audiences weren’t enticed. Typically, Roger asked Hanson for additional sex scenes, then retitled the flick The Arousers.

My own sojourn at New World Pictures came just after Hanson’s time, though I remember tabulating bookings for The Arousers in drive-ins across America. During my New World stint, however, I rubbed shoulders with other young directors (like my buddy Steve Carver) who began notable careers by making Corman genre movies, usually thrillers or horror flicks, on the lowest possible budgets. Monte Hellman was no youngster when he returned to New World to shoot Cockfighter. But I worked closely with Paul Bartel, who was tapped to direct the cult classic Death Race 2000 and would move on to the lurid Eating Raoul as well as much larger studio projects.  Jonathan Demme, who directed his first film, Caged Heat, for Roger in 1974, was a fixture around the New World offices, long before he became a major Hollywood player and an Oscar winner for a dark and twisted project on a grand scale: Silence of the Lambs.

Corman protégés from an earlier era included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich. After I left New World (but before I returned to Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons), the directing career of Ron Howard was launched. I knew Joe Dante as a New World editor and trailer cutter, but didn’t suspect he’d blossom into a director on the strength of Corman’s Piranha. For Joe, as for other Corman folk, cheap genre movies led to big careers. 

If you want to know more about Roger Corman and his circle, do check out my acclaimed insider biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. Now available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook form.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

David Cronenberg: Maps to Scary Places

I’m not sure what there is about the sturdy, Biblical name David that encourages perverse thoughts, but Movieland seems to be studded with writer-director Davids who consistently look on the dark side. David Lynch started with creepy works like Eraserhead, won widespread acclaim for Blue Velvet, achieved cult status with Twin Peaks, and continued off the beaten path with such disturbing films as Lost Highway  and Mulholland Drive. David  Fincher is perhaps best known for the not-so-grim The Social Network, but he got his hands bloody with flicks like Se7en, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl.

And then there’s David Cronenberg, who has made a career out of exploring subjects that are eerie and gruesome. Cronenberg is Canadian, which I believe is supposed to make him mild-mannered and polite. Which he may well be, in person, but his mind works in peculiar ways. Maybe that’s why his favorite literary influences are Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs, whose bizarre and unfilmable Naked Lunch he once tried to adapt for the screen. Given his filmography, it’s no surprise to learn that his favorite school subject was science, especially botany and lepidopterology. (This field, the study of butterflies, would certainly put him in sync with Nabokov, an expert in the field.)

I was first introduced to Cronenberg via his ghoulish remake of The Fly (1986), starring Jeff Goldblum as an out-of-control biologist. Intrigued—and, as a Roger Cormanite, always on the look-out for low-budget ideas we could steal—I  dipped back into the Cronenberg canon to discover The Brood (1979), full of psychological and biological oddities that end in a shocking conclusion. Then came Dead Ringers (1988), a cold, clinical tale involving Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists who share a perverse interest in women who are beautiful, inside and out. Not a lot of laughs in that one.

 I was impressed by Cronenberg’s riveting, though slightly more conventional, film approach to the graphic novel, A History of Violence (2005). But I’m thinking about Cronenberg right now because I just caught up with his most recent feature, 2014’s Maps to the Stars. This film has won its share of international awards, many of them for the lead performance of Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a troubled child of Hollywood.  Written by Tinseltown laureate Bruce Wagner, it has its share of mordant humor, based as it is on the questionable priorities of film stars and their entourage. But it seemed odd to me that Moore’s performance was singled out by the Golden Globes folks as a nominee for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. This film is by no means a musical, and I’d be hard pressed to think of it as a comedy, given that it encompasses arson, poisoning, strangulation, and the shooting death of an entirely innocent creature. I guess it could be considered comic in the Shakespearean sense because it ends (sort of) in a wedding. And that’s all the spoilers I’ll dare to mention.

Suffice it to say that there’s an expert cast, led by Moore as well as John Cusack (as a pop psychologist to the stars), Olivia Williams as his wife, Evan Bird as their cocky child-star son (now appearing in a sequel to Bad Baby-Sitters), Mia Wasikowska as the new girl from Jupiter, and Robert Pattinson as a Hollywood hopeful. The horror elements of the story don’t necessarily add up, but they’re creepy indeed. And the swank venues inhabited by the Hollywood rich are reproduced with a cold, clear eye. That’s good for a shudder, at least.