Filmmaking Tips

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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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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When assessing what present and future filmmakers can learn from David O. Russell’s ideas and practices, it really depends on which David O. Russell we’re talking about. Is it David O. Russell the mad genius auteur, who was as notorious for insisting on his vision as he was for getting in much-publicized spats with actors on set? Or is it David O. Russell the comeback king who, with this weekend’s American Hustle, seems all but guaranteed a third critically lauded and commercially successful film in a row? In several notable ways, the themes of David O. Russell’s films haven’t changed all that much – he’s still as preoccupied as ever with depicting various types of dysfunctional, untraditional, and ultimately affirming oddball “families” – but his filmmaking has changed greatly, a switch that he chalks up to lessons learned from the troubled shoot and reception of (the still-underrated) I Heart Huckabees as well as his unfinished film Nailed. Whatever you think of Russell’s films, he’s found himself in a position to speak about filmmaking from an encyclopedia of experiences (good and bad) and attitudes (egotistical to humble). So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who got Bruce Wayne and Katniss Everdeen their first Oscars.

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BrianKoppelman

It’s unlikely that you’ll see Brian Koppelman plugging a screenwriting how-to book anytime soon. The writer/director behind Ocean’s Thirteen and Solitary Man publicly denounced the hoodwinkery birthed by the cat-saving industry and felt strongly enough about the seminar culture to make it the message of his first six-second screenwriting tip. Those tips come in the form of Vines (what else?) that he produces daily. Each comes with a kind of scorched earth sincerity that you don’t often get from working filmmakers, and by next week, he’ll have amassed one hundred of them. That’s a full ten minutes of helpful jabs where his face and nearly two decades of insight fill the frame. Typically with this space we focus on 6 filmmaking tips and offer further challenges and exploration, but for Koppelman’s unique delivery, we’re making a special exception — particularly because there’s so much here (and because digging deeper would be like analyzing a punch with the person who’s on the mat). These bursts of advice easily stand alone. So here are my favorite six minutes of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a true grinder.

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spike-lee

To watch Spike Lee’s feature narrative films is to only understand a fraction of his career as director. If you count his documentaries, Spike Lee has, when next week’s Oldboy remake hits screens, helmed 32 features in the 27 years since She’s Gotta Have It. And that doesn’t even include the numerous shorts, music videos, commercials, and TV pilots he’s directed. Of all the things that are misunderstood about Spike Lee, his largely under-recognized and uniquely prolific output of work might be chief among them. As both public figure and producer of culture, Lee has meant many things to many audiences: co-pioneer of the 1980s American independent film renaissance, restless observer of popular culture, connoisseur of African-American popular music, firebrand provocateur, native new Yorker, and brand name. He has also helped define and expand the possibilities for contemporary African-American filmmakers inside and outside Hollywood. It’s difficult to imagine what American cinema of the past quarter century would look like without Spike. So here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man behind every Spike Lee joint.

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There’s a moment about halfway through Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, occasionally brilliant yet sharply uneven film Prisoners that finds Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki do something that we’ve seen so many detectives do in movies before: in a bout of frustration, he swipes his arms across his cubicle desk, violently sending his evidence and other materials into a labyrinthine clutter. But this fit of anger ends up leading to a serendipitous discovery – the chaotic new arrangement of papers on the floor reveals for the detective a clue that had been hiding under his nose in plain sight the whole time. This is moment is, in short, a cliché. Yet on the other side of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s lens, the moment takes on a plentiful, foreboding, and eerie quality. The muted tones, carefully composed yet slightly agape mise en scène, and rich depth of field collectively transform a moment we’ve seen so many times before into something considerably more. Through brilliant lensing, a cliché is elevated into the possibility that something, anything can happen in the detailed and uncertain world of this film.

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warhol_mario_montez

When Andy Warhol made the switch from painting to filmmaking, he took popular culture by surprise. Warhol was hardly the first artist of his era to traverse media, but he was one of the most prominent and famed, a decidedly off-kilter celebrity who created a personality not fit for prime-time yet nonetheless held a continued presence in prime-time. But the most shocking thing about Warhol’s films was the ways in which they presented the exact opposite of his notorious artwork. Where Warhol’s paintings and prints explored the ubiquitous presence of major movie stars, his own films cast a troupe of eccentric outsiders deemed the alternate universe superstars of his own downtown “factory.” Where Warhol’s paintings created “original” works of glossy, mass-produced products familiar to everyone in a society inundated by advertising (e.g., the infamous Campbell’s soup can), his films were raw, deliberately unpolished, often unedited events that challenged the inherently manufactured nature of the film medium (and, thus, they’re frustratingly hard to see outside of big cities). Whether you delight for a rare screening of the double-projected Chelsea Girls or scoff at the very idea of Empire, Warhol’s films captured a unique place and time in which uninhibited self-expression was king and even the movies could be a happening. So here ‘s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the snow-haired savant who did with cinema what an extraterrestrial might do with the English language.

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Watching Hunger for the first time is not an experience that I’ll soon forget. British video artist-turned-director Steve McQueen imbued this vision of the 1981 IRA hunger strike with such a potent visceral sense, with such a rich and detailed tapestry of sound and image, that watching it is truly a corporeal endurance test of stark immediacy. McQueen’s approach didn’t require traditional methods of character identification and narrative pathos – he simply used the reality of shared flesh and blood to connect the viewer with the events depicted onscreen. The result of McQueen’s efforts carries a profoundly haunting, disturbing, and ultimately revealing insight into the politics of the body, told through a symphony of blood, shit, and urine. McQueen’s latest reportedly doesn’t pull its punches. I have yet to see Twelve Years a Slave, but it is hardly surprising that an artist whose life of work has been so invested in exploring the human body’s use as a device for subjugation, domination, and othering has created such an affecting vision of the horrors of American slavery and institutionalized racism. While Twelve Years a Slave is by most accounts McQueen’s most “accessible” work to date, he doesn’t seem to have lost the touch that made his museum-based work so unique during his quick rise in mainstream critical consensus. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from not that Steve McQueen.

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Kimberly Peirce

It’s a shame that Kimberly Peirce has only made three feature films in 14 years. Boys Don’t Cry was a stunner of a debut, announcing a bold new talent to keep tabs on. Stop-Loss wasn’t quite as strong but it was still absolutely powerful enough to make her a sophomore with a bright future. For whatever reason, that future dimmed, but with Carrie coming out this weekend, it hopefully puts Peirce back on track to be artistically in our lives far more often. After all, it was her name that provided a much-needed legitimacy to a remake no one was asking for (of a De Palma film no less) and the optimism that the story could tackle difficult interpersonal drama underneath all the blood-drenched screaming. It’s fantastic to have her back, so here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director who has been away too long.

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yasujiro-ozu

In the 1993 documentary short Talking with Ozu, filmmakers from around the world including Wim Wenders, Claire Denis, and Paul Schrader attest to Yasujirō Ozu’s subtle yet resonant influence on their own filmmaking and their understanding of cinema as an art form. But rather than discuss how Ozu’s intricate and subtle shot compositions or elliptical depiction of consequential narrative events had a direct contribution on their own techniques, they each offer strictly personal tales, typically memories of the first time they saw one of Ozu’s films. Even though there is a lot of mastery in Ozu’s work to dissect and drool over, the real miracle of Ozu’s filmmaking is the personal connection that develops between the audience and the work. One does not have to be a filmmaker to understand how profoundly one can become tethered to deeply humanist character studies like Tokyo Story or Late Spring. There is something profoundly revelatory about Ozu’s work, something that speaks to the emotional and social undertaking of simply being a person in a world with other people. This is why his films have traveled with such potency across nations and history. Ozu’s influence can’t be measured in terms of references or innovations. His movies resonate in ways that a viewer might not initially realize. That’s incalculable. That, of course, doesn’t mean his specific techniques and contributions can’t be explored concretely. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from perhaps the one director whose incredible contributions to […]

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I have a pet theory that Ron Howard is like Spielberg without all the cinephile love. They’ve both done broad genre work, fantasy adventure and prestige films that earned Oscars. They’ve had giant successes in just about every realm, and they’ve also had monumental failures. They also both continually push to learn new things, both from a content standpoint and technical perspective. It’s also impressive that Howard has evolved so thoroughly that we often don’t even think about him as a child actor who emerged to continued success. For several generations, Howard has always been a sophisticated filmmaker with a wry sense of humor and a keen ability to deliver a fist-pumping moment of Hollywood satisfaction. Every once in a while, the realization that he’s been in the industry since he was six hits home and puts his career into both a surprising and completely sensible context. Of course he’s done what he’s done…and yet how many child actors can make the same claim (or have enjoyed the same enormity of success)? So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a guy who just can’t grow a beard as well as Spielberg.

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TABLOID_-_ErrolMorrisStill

In 1988, a documentary about a man in Texas convicted of a murder he did not commit made it to the top of numerous critics’ best-of lists, became one of the most widely-seen non-fiction films of its era, and even created enough publicity to overturn the conviction of the film’s subject.  However, The Thin Blue Line, despite the considerable attention and critical praise it attracted, was absent at that year’s Academy Awards because it was reportedly not considered a documentary. One can easily make a case inverse of the Academy’s evaluation, that this particular work actually defined what the documentary is, and can be, in North American filmmaking since. In what seems to be a decade-plus-long mainstream renaissance of the non-fiction form, The Thin Blue Line’s influence is palpable to a level nearing ubiquity. At the same time, nobody makes films quite like the intimidatingly intelligent and perceptive Errol Morris: filmmaker, investigative journalist, essayist, perceptive tweeter, and arguably (depending on who you ask) the first postmodernist documentarian. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who inspired Werner Herzog to eat a shoe.

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James Wan is one of the most adaptive directorial personalities in modern genre filmmaking, but his career didn’t always seem like it would turn out this way. Wan’s Saw was an indie mega-hit, spawning the most extensive horror franchise of the 21st century thus far. But Wan quickly distanced himself from the films, attempting to establish himself as a genre auteur of diverse skill sets. With his underwhelming one-two punch of Dead Silence and Death Sentence in 2007, he failed to develop a reputation away from the franchise that found continued success beyond him. But with Insidious and The Conjuring (this summer’s sleeper hit and one of the few pieces of Hollywood entertainment that actually entertained in the past few months), Wan found himself the modern master of the supernatural haunted house thriller, a horror sensibility miles away from the “torture porn” craze Wan’s franchise inception became associated with. This weekend sees the successful director helming his first sequel, Insidious Chapter 2, and Wan has signed on to make the next entry in the recently revived Fast/Furious franchise. Point being, Wan has proven himself against the limitations of the subgenre constraints he helped create, showing that he is a filmmaker interested in appealing to mass audiences through a variety of popular genres. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who forces us to ask how creepy dolls will fit into a movie about race cars and muscle-y bald men.

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"A Prairie Home Companion"

It’s sort of fitting that Robert Altman was nominated 7 times for Oscars but never won. He was naturally gracious when awarded an honorary statue for a truly distinguished career, but handing him the hardware earlier might have been a bit like offering an anchor to a man as reward for clearing a new path out of the jungle. A product of the wide open mindset of the 1970s, Altman nonetheless successfully navigated decades of changing tides within the industry, carving out a career that took him from effective workman to pioneer to contemplative auteur. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who was always a bridesmaid and yet still a legend.

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wongcannes

As a British colony until 1997 and Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong has created a popular culture completely unique to East Asian metropolitan living. This is demonstrated, in part, by the rich cinema tradition that has been continually exported from Hong Kong since the late 1970s, which bore films that distinctively combined East and West. While the region has produced some of the most memorable martial arts and action films of the late 20th century, the “Hong Kong New Wave” also witnessed the emergence of several great dramatists including Stanley Kwan, Yim Ho, Ann Hui and, of course, Wong Kar-Wai. For someone unfamiliar with Hong Kong firsthand, Wong’s films provide a resonant, bewitching, perhaps even definitive portrait of the city. In his international breakthrough Chunking Express, the densely populated metropolis’s kinetic movement and globalized circuits are accentuated by the film’s restless camera and Cranberries-infused soundtrack. In the Mood for Love stages several intimate meetings of traditional and contemporary life in the claustrophobic corners in an exponentially vertical Hong Kong. The dizzying 2046 presents a Hong Kong ever at the concurrent precipice of the past and the future. With The Grandmaster opening wide this weekend, Wong’s dramas now meet with that other signature Hong Kong genre, the martial arts film, providing as good of an opportunity as any to explore what makes his work so distinctive. So here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who somehow convinced us that beauty lies in a slow […]

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Edgar Wright

For most of us, our perfect Sunday includes a quiet read of the paper, a piping cup of our favorite tea leaf or coffee bean-based beverage and a hundredth screening of one of Edgar Wright‘s movies. With Shaun of the Dead and everything beyond, he’s been able to blend intimate character arcs (right down to the music) with genre tropes in a way that pretty much no one else has managed. He’s lovingly subverted genres while delivering us new fence-hopping heroes and a honed sense of comedy. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man famous for his work on Going Live!.

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published: 12.19.2014
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published: 12.18.2014
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published: 12.17.2014
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