Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Movie Orgy: Will Fruitville Station Prove Fruitless?

This past week I indulged in one of my occasional film orgies. A trip to my local public library gave me an excuse to come home with an armload of classics, chosen for variety as well as entertainment value. What a pleasure to have access – for free! -- to such a wealth of cinematic treasures.

First up was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a taut little crime-and-punishment drama from 2007 that was the last film directed by the great Sidney Lumet. Fifty years after he burst onto the Hollywood scene with Twelve Angry Men, the 83-year-old Lumet showed a young man’s vigor in guiding such contemporary aces as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Marissa Tomei into outrageously entertaining performances. It’s good to see that the director of such masterworks as The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network  went out in a blaze of glory, having etched yet another indelible portrait of New York life.

For a change of pace, I watched a 1942 screwball comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner, about what happens when a sharp-tongued public figure slips on an icy step at the home of a fan, and then takes over the household while recuperating. Hilarity ensues: I particularly liked Billie Burke as the dithery hostess; Mary Wickes, making her feature film debut as a much-put-upon nurse; and (of all people) Bette Davis doing a rare romantic turn as a loyal but no-nonsense sidekick to the great man. And, oh yes, I mustn’t forget the penguins.

Comedy of a very different sort marked 50/50, the 2011 flick in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt faces a cancer diagnosis with the help of best buddy Seth Rogen. It’s based on the real-life story of screenwriter Will Raiser, which is why it rings so true, with raunchy humor shown to be one defense against intimations of mortality. There wasn’t much humor in Robert Rosen’s bleak, powerful The Hustler (1961), which is ultimately less about a poolroom play-off between brash upstart Paul Newman and old smoothie Jackie Gleason than about the implications of winning and losing. This one packed a wallop.

As did, in a very different way, the heart-warming Norma Rae, made in 1979 by two Roger Corman alumnae, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose. This story of a feisty Southern textile worker who stands up for unionization turned Sally Field from TV’s Gidget into an Oscar winner. I loved the craft of this film, how it captured a sense of time and place, allowed its characters to reveal unexpected dimensions, and built to a powerful climax that was entirely silent. 

Norma Rae was based on the actions of Crystal Lee Sutton, who led a wildcat strike at a North Carolina textile plant. Because Sutton preferred to keep her private life private, the film creates a mostly fictional heroine. But when I ventured out to the multiplex last night, I saw a movie that’s all about an actual person on the last day of his life. Fruitvale Station, which has proved especially timely in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict,  introduces Oscar Grant, the deeply flawed but deeply engaging young black man who was killed by an Oakland, California transit cop on New Year’s Day, 2009. It’s a film that deserves attention.

But may not get it. At the same multiplex, most screens were filled with Wolverine, World War Z, Pacific Rim, RIPD, The Conjuring, and a few kiddie flicks. I hope today’s moviegoers can handle a film that contains no werewolves, demons, zombies, robots, or undead vigilantes, only a human being who ends up dead for real.

Friday, July 26, 2013

“Choosing Signs”: Choosing to Make Your Own Movie in Your Own Way

It takes more than the luck of the Irish to become a successful filmmaker. I first met Owen Dara when we both volunteered for the Citywide Reads project sponsored by the Santa Monica Public Library. But this congenial Irishman had bigger aspirations than leading Santa Monicans in literary give-and-take. An actor, singer, and comedian, Owen was out to take Hollywood by storm. Now, some years later, his first directorial effort is making its official debut at indie film events on both coasts. Choosing Signs has already won the Best Feature Film award at Tribecca’s Golden Egg Festival, and an appearance at Monrovia, California’s AOF International Film Festival is slated for August 21. It’s not exactly a premiere at Graumann’s Chinese, but maybe that will come.

Choosing Signs is sweet, slight, and endearing. Fans of Silver Linings Playbook will recognize the quirky but ultimately heartfelt world these characters inhabit. There is, first and foremost, a love story, between a down-to-earth Irish boy and an up-in-the-air American girl who makes life-choices by consulting the powers of the universe. Eamon’s all blarney and puppy-dog affability; Jennifer is tightly wound. That’s partly because of the other two males in her life: a brother with serious mental issues and a fiancé caught up in a mad scheme to provide low-cost immigrant housing by designing tiny “hallway apartments” in which furniture is suspended from the ceiling when not in use. Eamon, for all his good cheer, turns out to be fighting his own demons. The final major character is an acerbic young Russian housekeeper, played by the award-winning Betsy Douds. It is she who triggers the crisis that ultimately helps the others get their lives in order. This is a story about various kinds of failure to communicate, but there’s hope for them all in the end.

Since Choosing Signs was a shoestring production, no surprise that Owen Dara wore many hats. Aside from directing, he also wrote the script, edited the footage, composed the music, and played a leading role. (If you study the end credits, you’ll also see that a certain Arad Newo was responsible for several technical jobs.) Opposite Owen was Jessica Lancaster, both his real-life romantic partner and his producing partner on this film. I’m told that she also oversaw makeup and costumes, and that cast members obligingly filled in on the crew when not needed in front of the cameras.

Though this small story could have been set anywhere, Owen quickly realized he would save money by moving his locale from L.A. (where outdoor shooting would have required expensive permits) to his native Cork. Yes, key members of the team had to pay their own airfare to the Emerald Isle, but Owen’s family and friends welcomed them warmly, and were always helpful when it came to securing locations and key props. The famously changeable Irish climate smiled on the effort. (On Owen’s next filmmaking venture he would not be so lucky.) The catch-as-catch-can nature of indie filmmaking is suggested by one wee tidbit. By the time the film was finally shot, Betsy Douds was visibly pregnant. Since no one wanted to recast her role, Owen incorporated her pregnancy into the script. For me it made perfect sense in context: just another of those happy accidents that indie filmmaking sometimes inspires.

About prospects for future success, Owen is philosophical: “I don’t know what will happen with Choosing Signs, but I can say that if its creation yields nothing more than my having been part of creating it, then as an artist I will consider it to have been a valuable journey.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Rock-a-Bye, Royal Baby

When I heard that the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate, wife of Prince William) had gone into labor, my first thought was relief that my own childbearing – though it certainly created excitement in my family circle – did not require an international media watch. But of course I was not on track to produce a royal heir to the throne of Great Britain.

I know nothing about the protocol of videotaping a 21st century royal birth for posterity. But back when various guys named Louis reigned over France, it seemed urgent to ascertain that there were no baby-switching shenanigans in the birth chamber. So if you were a royal consort like Marie Antoinette, you could expect the bedroom at Versailles to be packed with blue-blooded onlookers. Just one more reason I’m glad I’m a commoner.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I published in the Los Angeles Times an article about pre-natal services. As research, I visited one of those trendy new birthing centers where you’re promised a home-like atmosphere. The head of the place (a man with a healthy crop of dandruff, as I recall) showed me a bedroom and proudly explained how you could invite any visitors you chose to watch you suffering through the throes of labor and delivery: your mother, your previous children, your videographer. No, I wasn’t tempted.

Ron Howard, though, gave in to temptation. Wife Cheryl became pregnant in 1980 while Ron was directing a TV movie called Skyward, in which most of the action is set at a Texas airstrip. The Howards’ redheaded daughter, Bryce Dallas – now a successful actress in her own right – was born on March 2, 1981. (Her middle name was chosen in honor of the city of her conception). Among Ron’s old friends from the time when he directed his very first film, Grand Theft Auto, at New World Pictures, word circulated that the expectant father, a filmmaker to the core, had personally picked up a movie camera and documented Bryce’s arrival. The folks at New World were definitely taken aback by this news. After all, movie blood is one thing, but actual blood is something else again. I strongly suspect New World’s boss, Roger Corman, was far too squeamish to record the birth of  his four offspring.

Lots of babies are born in Hollywood movies. Long ago, the whole messy business of childbirth was kept off screen, with most of the focus on the hustle-bustle of those in attendance. See, for instance, Gone With the Wind, in which the birth of Melanie’s child is upstaged by Prissy’s tragicomic admission that  “I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies.” And countless kettles have been put to boil in old movies, prompting my younger self to wonder exactly how all that hot water figured into the birthing process.  

Leave it to Judd Apatow, devoted father of two, to want to put the real thing on screen when making Knocked Up. There’s a story floating around that Anne Hathaway, cast in the female lead, dropped out when she discovered Apatow planned to get up close and personal with her mons veneris for the climactic hospital scene in which she delivers Seth Rogen’s baby. Her replacement, Katherine Heigl, bravely bared all, and her screaming match with a testy doctor comically captured the real-life tensions of the delivery room. I’m also happy to say that the newborn baby who finally emerged didn’t look like the two-month-old that is usually cuddled in such scenes. (I do wonder, though, about the mom who allowed her precious little bundle to get screentime, Hollywood style.)   

Friday, July 19, 2013

(Comic) Con Artists: How I Helped Animate New World Pictures

I admit it: I’ve never been to the legendary Comic-Con, which this year runs through July 21. It stands to reason that I’ve never made the (star) trek to San Diego, because I’m hardly the kind of fangirl for whom this event was designed. Comic-Con caters to passionate lovers of comic books, monster movies, fantasy fiction, animated film, and superheroes of all stripes. I blush to say that none of that exactly describes me.

Honestly, I had something of a wasted childhood. As a kid, I was perhaps unique among my peers in having serious-minded parents who didn’t approve of comic books. To make matters worse, they didn’t park me at kiddie matinees, nor did they allow daytime television. Of course that didn’t stop me from indulging at the home of my best friend. Betsy owned a stack of Archie comics, and also those featuring Katy Keene, who came equipped with a fashion wardrobe you could cut out. Though Betsy’s tastes in comic books were admittedly girly, she also watched TV westerns. And it was via the TV set in her living room that I discovered Mighty Joe Young and The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent.

Little did I know, when I saw the rather goofy 1957 film officially titled The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, that one day I’d be working for its director. When Roger hired me, I was accustomed to hanging around with academics, discussing high-brow authors like Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges. At New World Pictures, I suddenly found myself in an environment where everyone imbibed science fiction, fantasy, and horror along with their Cream of Wheat. Whiplash!

Fortunately, I’m a fast learner, and I grew to love pop culture, especially for its sheer exuberance. New World was full of smart people, but it was certainly no place for intellectual snobbery. We got a charge out of making flicks about sexy nurses, jolly bank robbers, and guys who became national heroes by running over pedestrians. True, Roger also shifted gears in that era, becoming America’s biggest importer of foreign-language art films. His first coup along these lines was distributing Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, which was not without sexual implications, but hardly contained the kind of rollicking T&A in which we at New World specialized.

Soon thereafter, I found myself working on a very artful animated film from France, La Planète Sauvage.  The story was science fiction – about a distant planet on which human beings are subservient to large blue beings with bald heads – but the look was elegantly pastel-hued. Though the version I first saw had subtitles, Roger figured most red-blooded American audiences wouldn’t stand for those. So I ended up translating the dialogue and voice-over narration, after which we persuaded Broadway star Barry Bostwick and such Golden Age of Radio folk as Marvin Miller, Olan Soulé, and Janet Waldo to lend their voices (for minimum scale) to an English-language version.

Fantastic Planet, as we called our revamped film, was genteel – but not so the next animated movie with which Roger got involved. This was the era of Ralph Bakshi’s raunchy Fritz the Cat, and someone had the bright idea of making our own X-rated cartoon. At first this story of a foul-mouthed fowl was called Cheap, because the title had obvious appeal for our miserly boss. When it finally got made, though, it was titled Dirty Duck. The very ladylike Janet Waldo did some of the voices, but in the credits her name is nowhere to be seen.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Going Back to the Drawing Board with “The Way, Way Back”

I’ve long taught screenwriting courses – first in a classroom and now online – through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program  Recently, I’ve specialized in teaching students how to rewrite their existing screenplays. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. As working screenwriters know all too well, talent and a good idea are not enough. It takes perspiration as well as inspiration to turn good scripts into great ones.

A case in point is a small coming-of-age film that’s arriving in theatres now. The Way, Way Back attracted attention in 2007, when it appeared on a so-called “Black List” of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. The central premise was appealing, if somewhat familiar: fourteen-year-old Duncan, stuck in a beach-house with his mother and her obnoxious new squeeze, finds an unexpected sense of self-worth when he makes friends with the manager of a seedy water park. In 2007, co-authors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were best known as TV actors, specializing in sketch humor and sitcom wackiness. Then they shared an Oscar for adapting The Descendants to the screen, and their stock rose to the point that they were able to launch a modest but star-studded production of The Way, Way Back, with themselves as co-directors. (They also gave themselves fat – and very funny – cameos as weird water park employees.)

Now Faxon and Rash’s little movie, having sparked a bidding war at Sundance, is being slowly rolled out for general audiences. In hyping The Way, Way Back as “a new comedy from the studio that brought you Little Miss Sunshine and Juno,” Fox Searchlight is clearly appealing to those among us who love modestly-budgeted indies with sunny outcomes. The ads also play up the presence of such reliable names as Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Maya Rudoph among the cast of characters. 

Many critics have been charmed. In the L.A. Times, reviewer Betsy Sharkey began by heaping praise on the Faxon-Rash script, whose “dialogue remains too pure, too quirky, too conversational to have been tampered with by studio execs or nervous backers—so a shout-out to all the folks who kept their notes to themselves.” Her implication is that the original screenplay was so perfect that development execs simply needed to stay out of the way. But I know better. I recently served as guest moderator at a Hollywood gathering called Storyboard, at which aspiring screenwriters assess scripts before they make it to the big screen. When we discussed a draft of The Way, Way Back, its merits were easy to see. But so were its flaws. Character relationships didn’t always make sense. Young Duncan’s crucial connection with his step-father (the Carrell role) was puzzling because we didn’t know how long they had been part of a blended family, nor what had happened to Duncan’s biological dad. There were also issues involving the script’s tone. Did it mean to be raunchy, or sweet? How was the audience to feel about a climactic scene in which our hero gets drunk and a very young neighbor is comically revealed as a pot-head?

I’m happy to report that somewhere along the line, Faxon and Rash obviously did some rewriting. Carrell was turned from Mom’s second husband into a boyfriend with marriage on his mind, which in context makes perfect sense out of the script’s summer beach vacation. We know what happened to Duncan’s father, and hence understand this kid’s sense of loss. The sex, booze, and dope elements of the story are toned down, and we’re left with a satisfying little story, just right for a midsummer night at the movies.