Filmmaking Tips

William Greaves

If there are two words that describe public appreciation of William Greaves, they would be “belated” and “lacking.” The film Greaves is best known for, 1971’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, didn’t see an official theatrical release until thirty years after its completion (thanks in part to the support of Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh). When Greaves passed away last month at the age of 87, he left behind an amazing body of work, having produced and directed dozens of documentaries. Yet even amongst this country’s underrepresented class of African American filmmakers, Greaves’ contributions remain overlooked. It is no exaggeration to say that media gatekeepers have been wary of Greaves’ work. Greaves decided at an early age not to be relegated by Hollywood’s single-minded understanding of blackness and the lack of creative opportunities it permits for persons of color. Greaves used these limitations as the lifeblood of his work, challenging political, institutional, and aesthetic boundaries. One look at Symbiopsychotaxiplasm explains, but does not justify, its delayed release: this is the work of his filmmaker ahead of his time, and one with no patience for conventional approaches to filmmaking. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an essential American filmmaker.

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Super Movie

James Gunn made the movie that ruled the summer, which is really fucking weird. Not because he isn’t talented (because he is), but because his rise to prominence doesn’t make mathematical sense. The odds were astronomical. To think about it in the worst way possible, Lloyd Kaufman — the founder of Troma — is still hustling Troma films wherever he can while his Tromatic protege has the #1 movie of the year. He’s a bona fide mainstream success who got his start rewriting Shakespeare so that Juliet becomes a monster with a giant dick. Now, the world has officially gotten his dick message. But to try to nail down Gunn’s style is impossible. Beyond the genre fuckery of Troma which has proven itself to be a borrowed language, Gunn has also written and/or directed stripped-down horror, a surprisingly family friendly series where a talking dog solves mysteries and a hero satire that’s far smarter and more earnest than Kick-Ass. Gunn has a fantastically twisted sense of humor, but instead of toiling in obscurity or b-level experimentalism, he’s making blockbusters that millions of people love. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a guy who learned everything from the Toxic Avenger.

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The Limits of Control

As many successful American filmmakers who get their start in independent filmmaking quickly find themselves comfortable in Hollywood studios, Jim Jarmusch feels like the anachronism that the economics of filmmaking rarely find room for but the culture of cinema certainly needs. After making the No Wave-era Permanent Vacation on the seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape of a crumbling late-70s New York, Jarmusch made waves at the then-young Sundance film festival with Stranger Than Paradise, a bare bones indie that exhibited the director’s penchant for deliberate pacing, wry humor, an insistent soundtrack and a canted examination of Americana. Jarmusch’s productions are few and far between, partly due to the fact that he is ever in want of funding and seeks final cut on all his films. The process may be difficult, but it’s worth it: thirty years after Paradise, Jarmusch crafted Only Lovers Left Alive (recently released on disc and digital), a film that surprised me as both a sideways look at high-cult consumption and one of the most genuinely romantic films of this year. It is, in short, well worth the seven years of frustration that it took to get the film made and into theaters. It’s hard to imagine the same film coming from a filmmaker willing to touch studio funding. And it’s an intoxicating glimpse of what could be if more independent filmmakers were as unimpressed by studio dollars as Jarmusch. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a Son of Lee Marvin.

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Rosemarys Baby John Cassavetes

The 1980s proved a difficult time for many notable American directors of the 1960s and 70s. Sure, filmmakers like Altman and Coppola came out on the other side of the decade with renewed vigor, and at least one – Scorsese – even managed to arguably realize some of the most interesting work of his career. But for others, the 1980s were a lost and endless horizon of work that was hard to come by compounded by life circumstances that were even harder to endure. Difficult men who lived hard and felt deeply now found themselves confronted with their most profound personal and professional limitations. After trying to reform himself in the wake of drug addiction and a damaged reputation, Hal Ashby died of pancreatic cancer in December 1988. Just over a month later, renowned independent filmmaker, theater director, writer, and actor John Cassavetes passed away of cirrhosis of the liver. Cassavetes was supposed to die five years earlier, when he received a prognosis that he had only six months to live. Faced with almost certain death, Cassavetes composed a wrenching, beautiful and deeply personal swan song titled Love Streams about an aging alcoholic socialite reconnecting with his estranged sister, played by his wife Gena Rowlands. The dramatist would produce another film (Big Trouble, which he disowned) and stage a play after outlasting his doctor’s prediction, but Love Streams remains Cassavetes’ decisive magnum opus, both a thematic summation of his career in film and an indication of how his lifelong approach to filmmaking […]

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Shirley Clarke Productions

Shirley Clarke grew up wealthy, the daughter of a manufacturing magnate and a family fortune. She had an extensive education between four universities, and married to escape her father’s tyrannical control of her adult life. At first Clarke pursued modern dance in New York City but, failing to secure a future for herself in one art form, she began making experimental, avant-garde and documentary films in her mid-thirties. Over the next several decades, Clarke produced fiction films that looked like documentaries, documentaries that flirted with the boundaries of fiction, some of the first video art projects, and movies that possess an incredible energy to them that few filmmakers have mastered, then or now. She studied under Hans Richter, inspired other New York filmmakers like John Cassavetes, helped co-found the Filmmakers’ Co-Op with Jonas Mekas, yet the important role that she played in the New American Cinema scene has risked becoming stuck between the pages of cinema history. Thankfully, Milestone Films has restored some of her groundbreaking works, including The Connection, Portrait of Jason, and Ornette: Made in America, all due for a home video release sometime this year. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an artist who never stopped challenging herself.

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James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix Making The Immigrant

James Gray seems like an anachronism. Between visually noisy blockbusters and indies that display a greater interest in bending narrative conventions rather than mastering them, his adherence to a more classical form of storytelling feels out-of-touch with contemporary filmmaking practice. His evident influences and forerunners include Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini and Francis Ford Coppola, and his cinematic relationship to New York City feels indebted to Sidney Lumet yet remains unmistakably his own. Gray doesn’t use other filmmakers’ work as a Tarantino-esque palette for diversion, despite his shared affinity for crime drama, that signature ’90s indie genre staple (Gray’s first feature was a 1994 gangster film starring Tim Roth – that’d be Little Odessa, not Pulp Fiction). Gray’s narratives are classical and familiar, but they’re never derivative or postmodern. The filmmaker instead uses cinema’s history as a tool to master storytelling, character development, mood and setting as a form of practice, and he realizes his personality as a filmmaker through the life he knows outside of filmmaking, principally as the Brighton Beach-raised grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. If his standalone work feels anachronistic, that’s exactly why his work is essential and urgent – a reminder of what filmmaking can be beyond formal gimmickry and narrative subversion. He is the rare example of a filmmaker whose primary referent is not cinema itself. And with his latest, The Immigrant (now available on Netflix Instant), Gray has quietly released what might turn out to be the best film this year. It’s a small step for a filmmaker whose unassuming […]

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Terry Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha

The release of any Terry Gilliam film is a big deal. More so than any living filmmaker of lauded repute, Gilliam’s work has been unusually burdened by outsized circumstances that render it astonishing that he’s even accomplished the work he has, from Universal’s re-cutting of Brazil to his lead actor dying during the production of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to his doomed “Don Quixote” project, documented in the film Lost in La Mancha. Not since Orson Welles (who famously pursued his own uncompleted Quixote film) has a respected filmmaker had such an endlessly difficult time bringing his ideas to screen. That makes the announcement of a late summer release date for Gilliam’s newest feature, The Zero Theorem, all the more remarkable. The film looks like prime Gilliam territory, with its dystopic representation of a certain future burdened by blinding consumerism and Kafka-esque bureaucracy reminiscent of the director’s most notorious battle for artistic autonomy, 1985’s Brazil. As notable as Gilliam’s work is for its visual inventiveness, its wry humor and its trenchant political themes, Gilliam’s career is just as famous for the unceasing uphill battle through which his inimitable filmmaking is achieved. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only American member of Monty Python who is actually no longer American.

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Andy Serkis Smeagol Hobbit

When the biggest movie of the calendar year is a nearly three-hour festival of noise starring automotive robots, it’s easy to fear that the human element of filmmaking is slowly being lost to digital effects and bottom line corporate interests. But the career of Andy Serkis provides a powerful demonstration as to how the human capacity for imagination and feeling can work with, not against, the utilities of motion picture technology towards groundbreaking ends. Serkis considers himself an actor first and foremost, but he occupies a unique and privileged place across so many film properties that could otherwise easily be bereft of inspiration, content to live in the uncanny valley of requisite CGI. Serkis’ work requires his presence during all levels of production, and in so doing he operates as a medium between a filmmaker’s vision and their collaboration with cast and crew both in front of and behind the camera. His body is, in summary, the place in which the material and immaterial aspects of 21st century filmmaking play out. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who only sometimes plays a human being.

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An American Werewolf in London

There’s a reason that, 33 years after its release, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London remains a gold standard in on-camera special effects. The detailed and inventive use of makeup and animatronics by Rick Baker and his team meticulously fashioned a transformative threat to one man’s body that proved to be enduringly terrifying and enthralling, not to mention a bit cheeky. While CGI and other digital techniques age remarkably quickly, the indexical standard of animatronics and makeup create an ever-convincing case for the relative permanence of older means for producing spectacle. It’s simply a different thing when the effect was genuinely there, on set, alongside the events and people filmed. Hollywood spectacle has changed dramatically over the past thirty years, and Rick Baker’s career is evidence of that, with his role behind the scenes increasingly combined with the work of digital engineers. Yet Baker has always embraced the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines of special effects, from puppeteers to stop-motion animators to today’s armies of talented digital artists. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only person to have won an Academy Award for Harry and the Hendersons.

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Hiroshima Mon Amour

Three weeks before Alain Resnais died this past March, he had premiered his newest film, Life of Riley, at the Berlin Film Festival, which he completed at the age of 91. Resnais enjoyed a uniquely prolific streak of filmmaking in his later years that laughed at the prospect of retirement or death. For a moment it seemed possible that Resnais himself would continue to exist as ceaselessly as the memories that preoccupy his characters; thankfully, with his incredible body of work, Resnais is etched into eternity. Resnais continued to experiment with the limits of cinematic form over fifty years after his career-defining work on Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, and Last Year in Marienbad. The past decade of his career proved that age is no excuse for artistic resignation or repetition – while not nearly as well-known, more recent works including Private Fears in Public Places, Wild Grass, and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! challenged the medium with as much audacity and confidence as his canonical earlier works. Debating the status of “reality” in Last Year in Marienbad is one thing; explaining the ending of Wild Grass is another matter entirely. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a mind that always exists in both the past and present.

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The Exorcist

William Friedkin began his directing career on television, where he helmed numerous documentaries and even an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in which, during filming, young Friedkin was reportedly chastised by the Master of Suspense for not wearing a tie. Friedkin is the blue-collar outsider of New Hollywood, the genuine article in an era during which everyone fashioned himself an outsider. The son of lower-middle class Ukranian immigrants, Friedkin worked his way from the mailroom of a local TV station to eventually directing some of the most beloved films of the 1970s like The French Connection and The Exorcist. In his approach to filmmaking and his biography, Friedkin has more in common with Lumet and Ford than his film-school-rank contemporaries Coppola and Scorsese. Yet there is still no director quite like Friedkin, who during the 1970s helmed the first major film with an all-gay cast, won an Oscar for a film that defined the heart-stopping car chase, made the biggest horror blockbuster of all time, and sent Roy Scheider to drive a truck 200 miles through the Dominican Republic. With renewed attention and appreciation given to past flops Cruising and Sorcerer (the director’s favorite of his films), William Friedkin’s career now looks to be one of the richest and most diverse among his generation of filmmakers. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) by the guy from the “film school generation” who never went to film school.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

This post is in partnership with Cadillac Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America recently launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition with the late Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz as its spiritual center. In celebration of Zaentz, contestants are being asked to draw thematic inspiration from his work. Fittingly, the 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards. At almost every turn in his career as a producer, Saul Zaentz tilted against convention. He wasn’t an outright rebel or provocateur (although he’d work hand in hand with some). It’s more like he was a man who saw what was popular in its time and chose to do something something else. In the 70s, it was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the 80s, it was the weirdness of Amadeus and the mature determination of Mosquito Coast. In the 90s, it was The English Patient, and he rounded out his career with Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts in the 2000s. But instead of judging each of these movies and their successes against the cinematic movements of their time, it’s more important to see them simply as projects that Zaentz felt passionate about. Not only was he not working within the framework of popularity, he wasn’t responding to it either. Some of these were movies absolutely no one else wanted to make, but they hit Zaentz hard enough in the gut to put his money, time and talent behind them. His punishment for being that independent was having to write so many Oscar acceptance […]

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Manhattan Movie

Hearts have been rapturously breaking in Woody Allen’s Manhattan for 35 years, and will likely continue to do so for as long as human beings cherish cinema. Last week marked the anniversary of the film often hailed as Allen’s masterwork. It’s easy to see why Manhattan is so beloved. The film is a perfect confluence of story, sight and sound. Gordon Willis’ stunning monochromatic Panavision tableaus, George Gershwin’s rhapsodic instrumentals and an iconic cityscape make a majestic setting for a story of reckless romance. Whatever genre you’re working in, Manhattan remains a trove of inspiration for filmmakers seeking to steal from one of American cinema’s best-loved auteurs. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Allen’s ode to The Big Apple.

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Like Someone In Love

One of my favorite aspects of Abbas Kiarostami’s films is how thoroughly he realizes the world within and around his characters. You hear the “world of the film” used often to describe the visions of directors attendant to detail, but no other filmmaker manifests a world of the film at quite the intimate yet expansive scope that Kiarostami does. His films make the camera feel almost incidental, as if this is simply the character or the moment that Kiarostami decided to focus on amongst a great many incidents and possibilities happening around that character or that moment. The world of his films offers glimpses into the lives of supporting characters, any of whom could be the focus of a Kiarostami film all their own. Take his latest, Like Someone in Love, for example. At one point Akiko (Rin Tanakashi) has her cab driver circle a roundabout while she looks on at her grandmother at a transit stop, who obliviously waits for a family visit that will never occur. Kiarostami sticks with Akiko, but we carry that glimpse into the world of other possibilities that surround her life for the rest of the film. It takes incredible craftsmanship to make films feel as seamless, realist, and spontaneous as Kiarostami does. Last week, Kiarostami stopped by the Indiana University Cinema to discuss filmmaking with Richard Peña on the occasion of the Cinema’s retrospective of his career. So here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) shared by the internationally renowned director.

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Black Swan

You can call Darren Aronofsky many things, but what you can’t call him is unambitious. From a stylized depiction of a mathematician’s gradual descent into madness to a story of one man’s love and loss that traverses across a millennium to an unrelenting journey into the life-or-death stakes of the perfect ballet performance, Aronosky’s work has tackled an array of subjects that all bear his stamp: a pursuit of perfection shared unmistakably between himself and his characters. Even when the reach of his ambitions has exceeded his grasp, Aronofsky has always made films that bear the mark of a director unwilling to compromise, for better or worse. His latest, Noah, no doubt represents his most enterprising reach yet. At once an epic Hollywood spectacle and a fable updated to deal with fears of an impending environmental apocalypse, Noah is a strange and enticing combination of big budget studio fodder and bewildering yet beautiful gestures of visionary auteurism. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who made 3.14159 cool again.

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Antichrist Fox

It’s hard to imagine a career as provocative and unrestrained as Lars von Trier’s taking a turn for even greater extremes. But with 2009’s Antichrist, that’s exactly what the Danish purveyor of human suffering accomplished, making a film that inspired massive walkouts, presumed on the surface to take seriously the notion of gender-inherent evil, and added a talking fox of doom to our cinematic language. The ambivalent reception (to put it as mildly as possible) of Antichrist at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival is best encapsulated by the two recognitions the film received: the Best Actress award for Charlotte Gainsbourg, and an “anti-award” recognizing the film as “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” While shocking and offending audiences with portrayals of suffering women is hardly new territory for von Trier, Antichrist marked a turning point. Having abandoned for the foreseeable future his “USA: Land of Opportunities” trilogy, von Trier instead turned to a series of films less connected by continued themes, and instead threaded by the director’s open approach to filmmaking itself as a therapeutic process to combat his depression. After continuing with Melancholia, this unofficial trilogy of sorts sees its third entry with the much-discussed two-part Nymphomaniac, currently rolling out over March and April in theaters and on VOD. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director currently banned from the Cannes Film Festival.

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Princess Mononoke

In the context of American animation, Hayao Miyazaki’s films seem nearly unfathomable. With their conspicuous absence of exclusively kid-centric theatrics and their eschewing any burden of pop culture topicality, Miyazaki’s films are instead allowed to explore the limitless imaginative possibilities of animated filmmaking. And there are few imaginations quite like Miyazaki’s. That’s what makes his retirement on the occasion of The Wind Rises that much more of a loss. It’s difficult to be anything but grateful for the beautiful films the 73-year-old director has made, but his absence will certainly leave a giant, gaping hole that no other filmmaker can replace. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who makes us wish we could call a giant wood spirit our neighbor.

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8 and a half

Lynchian. Hitchcockian. The Lubitsch touch. Transforming a filmmaker’s name into a qualitative term has been a common practice in tracking the style and influence of those who have contributed to the art form. But few proper nouns-turned-adjectives carry a greater reserve of meaning than Felliniesque. Felliniesque can refer to a carnival style, one that bends and toys with supposed distinctions between reality and fantasy. The Felliniesque acknowledges the potential for life to reach orgiastic highs and desperate lows in one fell swoop, and finds adults constantly haunted by the memories, trials, and joys of childhood. The Felliniesque can see beauty in the mundane, and abject horror in the most fantastic of experiences. There are few filmmakers whose style has remained so distinctive through an array of transitions, from social realism to fantastic spectacles. He is a filmmaker of enormous influence – yet, as Paolo Sorrentino demonstrated with The Great Beauty, it is better to tip our hat and pay homage than to imitate the unparalleled. So here is some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from no doubt the most Felliniesque director.

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Stories We Tell

Even if you don’t buy into the game and you prefer not to live in a world in which the term “Oscar snub” is used with a straight face, sometimes a lack of recognition for worthy nominees can still sting a little. Such was the case with the conspicuous absence of Sarah Polley’s name when the Best Documentary Feature nominees were announced two weeks ago. After two strong narrative explorations of romantic relationships in the bitter winter of old age and the summer splendor of late youth (Away From Her and Take This Waltz, respectively), Polley redirected her interest in the world of human coupling by turning the camera on herself – or, more accurately, her family, or, even more accurately, who she thinks may be her family, or… Well, just see it if you haven’t already, because Stories We Tell is one of the more passionate, involving, and incisively intelligent mainstream documentaries to be released in quite some time. AMPAS has had a history of recognizing more conservative, journalistic notions of “documentary” and shown favor for the crowd-pleasers (like this year’s Sugar Man-esque hit 20 Feet From Stardom). But that only speaks more in Polley’s film’s favor, as it potentially joins the ranks of other productively unconventional yet contemporaneously unrecognized documentaries that we continue to regard as seminal well after their release, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Regardless of the reputation and recognitions of Stories We Tell, now or in the future, Sarah Polley is certainly a filmmaker […]

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filmweb-570x300

This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of The Room’s opening at two theaters in Los Angeles. Since its cult reception began with a couple of college students during the last week of the film’s initial 2003 exhibition, The Room accelerated into a bona fide cultural phenomenon complete with Rocky Horror-like rituals, public script readings, a video game, and countless experiences of uncanny disbelief from everyone who has enjoyed the enviable experience of viewing this film for the very first time. There have been great bad movies before, and there will be more in the future. What separates The Room from the rest is that the context from which it was made seems like something that could only exists as a hypothetical: what if somebody with an enigmatic personality and no evident competence for filmmaking produced – and somehow completed – a feature film from his endless well of unspecified resources? Other great bad films emerged from conflicts between producers and talent, misguided attempts at earning a cheap dollar, or earnest efforts at a high-concept idea on a shoestring budget. What makes The Room unique is that it is unquestionably the singular vision of its maker, writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau. For all its obvious and beloved faults, The Room must be recognized as an ideal work of indie filmmaking passion. It is, in total, an uncompromising film characterized by its author’s total intent. So, accompanied by a large grain of salt, here is some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) […]

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