Cinematography Mailing List - CML

 

Search
Dale Launers NAB Presentation

They say it's impolite to discuss religion or poltics at dinner. I don't think it's impolite, I think it's impossible.

That's because a discussion on this level usually involves an attempt to change someone's belief system - which is the impossible part.

Even if they're wrong, especially if they're wrong- they will resist you at any cost. You can make the strongest argument imaginable and they'll simply disagree. You can support your argument with irrefutable facts derived from highly reliable sources, and it will be dismissed in favor of a supporting anecdote, hearsay, or something they just made up on the spot. No matter whatever evidence you may provide, people by and large will remain unconvinced and unchanged.

That's because belief systems are more often than not based in faith, and faith by definition does not include facts, logic or scientific methodology.

It's a way of life, a commitment of sorts, and to change one's commitment to that belief would be tantamount to make them become disloyal, or worse--as if you were trying to change their very soul.

And if do you try, some people will bristle with resentment. Ever tell a child there's no Santa Claus? They resent you for it.

You wanna really piss someone off? Prove to them they're wrong. People don't like being proved wrong because that's like being proved they're stupid.

Relentlessly corner someone intellectually, then prove to them they're wrong and then ram home that truth? They're really gonna hate and they're still not going to change.

A kinder, softer approach to changing someone is a slightly annoying tactic parents often employ, it's the "Wait till you get older, then you'll understand" approach. This is really a variation on "I used to believe the way you believe, but I have learned over the years that I was wrong and I have changed. And I'm wiser now."

Which brings me to the auteur theory. I used to believe in the auteur theory. But I have learned over the years that I was wrong and I have changed. I am wiser now."

If you don't know what the auteur theory is, then let me explain in a nutshell.

A handful of French Film critics in the '50's discovered that a handful of notable American films were directed by a handful of directors.

They saw such consistency in these films that they argued that the directors should be considered the authors of those films.

Auteur is French for author--hence the "auteur theory". If you believe in the auteur theory, then you believe that directors are the authors of the films they've directed.

Somewhere along the way, the auteur theory has become commonly accepted, a belief system we've grown up with.

It is ingrained in our culture.

For instance, I was looking through some magazine and found a copy of Entertainment Weekly magazine, an issue dedicated to all the movies coming out the following year.

Each segment tells us who's starring in the film and who directed it and also gives a brief story synopsis-but no mention of the writer.

I picked up the Video Movie Guide - with "more than 17,000 movies on video!" It had 17,000 story synopses, 17,000 mentions of directors, and more than 50,000 mentions of stars, but no writers.

Yes, I used to believe...but I changed. Here's what changed me.

When I was a film student, I became a devotee in the church of the director.

I remember reading books with titles like The Director as Superstar. I was a big fan of Kubrick and Hitchcock. My first student film was to be a highly cinematic and stylish thriller!

Having taken every screenwriting class Cal State University at Northridge had to offer (two classes in all) I saw down and wrote a script.

Here's the story.

A teenage girl, a cute teenage agirl is babysitting when she hears a weird sound sound coming from someplace in the house-she investigates.

As she walks through the very large home, the sound grows louder - she's getting closer.

She eventually finds that it's coming from a closet in a room, in the back of the house.

Tension builds as she reaches out to open the closet door, but she stops!

She leaves the room, goes back into the kitchen, and gets herself a big carving knife.

She returns to the room with the noise, goes up to the door, and with her trembling hand, the one without the knife, she grabs the doorknob, turns the handles, and the door flies open!

And there's nothing there - just black - as thought she were looking into another dimension! And then, and then...her hair blows up from behind her--there's a huge sucking force coming from the closet, and it's sucking her into the closet!

She resist, falls, and grabs the floor, but it's useless -- she can't get a grip - and she is dragged in the closet.

The door closes! And that's it. That's the end.

I shot the film by myself, in color, 16mm with a Beaulieu R16.

I wanted my friend Brad to look at the film. Brad was a young man with a bright future, who'd won a few photography awards and wanted to be a director too.

We were film buddies, we'd gone to the movies many times together and had long discussions over the merits of this film over that one.

I respected Brad's taste as being as intractably snobby as my own. Brad came down to the school, and we went into the editing room, threaded up my opus, and turned on the Moviola.

And Brad watched.

As the girl was wandering through the house, Brad was commenting favorably on how the look, the lighting, the composition, angles, the choices of lens, the shadows, the camera movements.

He was very impressed and he was really involved in the film --and he asked out loud, genuinely curious--"what's in the closet?!" The movie answered his question.

Then the door flew open, and the girl got sucked in.

Brad was silent.

Whatever good impresson I had built up in the first ten minutes was completely lost in the last thirty seconds.

I was not betrayed by my directing skills, or my cinematography skills, or editing or music, oh no, I was betrayed by my script, by my writing skills.

I believe if you put the world's greatest directors in that room, with best D.P.s, an infinite amount of time, film, crew and money - and ask them to direct a woman being sucked into a closet, you can't make it work because the idea--a woman being sucked into a close---it's a stupid idea. You can't make a stupid idea smart no matter how well you direct, shoot, stage, light, dress up, or score it--she's still being sucked into a closet!

This is a point lost on Hollywood, because they do it all the time.

And when a movie works? Then the converse is true, it's hard to screw it up.

When a woman being sucked into a closet is a satisfying emotional payoff to the scenes that preceded it, and the audience aches for that woman to be sucked into the closet, when that woman's lifelong dream of being denied a good closet sucking--suddenly comes true, you have an emotional payoff that works.

At the time I discovered a newfound respect for writing--a respect that continues to grow. As more of my films got made, I could see what works (or what doesn't work)--works because it is engineered to work in the the script.

Over the next eight years, I honed my writing skills to a point where I actually sold a screenplay; Ruthless People. It was made, became a bona fide box office hit, and was considered to be a well-reviewed movie.

The studio sent me a stack of reviews. About 100 of them. I read them all.

The reviews would often mention a scene or a moment or a situation or a gag that I'd written - and would then proceed to give the director credit for it. Or they would say something like - story is tepid and hackneyed but Danny Devito's character was great. Danny DeVito's character?

After I reading those reviews, I became a confirmed fallen Auteurist.

An interesting thing would happen. I'd meet people outside the movie biz who'd ask me what I do for a living.

I'd tell them I write movies, that I wrote Ruthless People and they'd say "Oh, Danny Devito - he's so funny!"

Later in the conversation, be it an hour, a day or a week later the outsider would always ask--"When you say you wrote the screenplay, what exactly does that mean?"

And when I'd told them what I did--that "I came up with the idea, wrote the entire story, the characters, one scene after another, all the dialogue.

They were impressed, but more important they were suprised.

But not always. Some people would get quiet and acknowledge what I said, but they weren't impressed. Why? They didn't believe I actually wrote the story in the detail I described. Why is that? Why wouldn't they believe it?

Because everywhere they look, they see mentions of directors, directors show up on talk shows, or in magazines, and movie stars are everywhere. If they didn't have a huge contribution to the movies they were in, then why would is there such a fuss? And after all, it was Danny DeVito that made them laugh.

Don't get me wrong, Danny's a terrific actor, and like all terrific actors, he said the words as though they were his own. That's what terrific actors are expected to do. But if try to insist those words are mine, it makes me look churlish.

I thought things would change if I had another hit movie. There is an accumulation of clout when you have hits in Hollywood.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels proved me wrong. My Cousin Vinny - proved me wrong again.

My net profit participation in those three hit of those films adds up to a grand total of--nothing.

Put two or more screenwriters in a room and they inevitably start bitching about their treatment in Hollywood.

Why don't they organize and do something about it? What about the Writer's Guild of America, or the WGA. There are some great people who work in the WGA, and most produced writers are livid and will to commit to making radical changes, but by and large the WGA is the Whiner's Guild of America.

That last strike? They didn't get anything. They were tossed a few crumbs, but nothing serious. A lot of posturing and pumped up chests, claims of victory and...once again the studios rolled over them.

The WGA can't even get them to abide by their original promises, let alone keep to new ones.

So, it was time for drastic measures. If I made a movie on my own, out of pocket, I could make whatever I want, I could own, control it, I could edit it. I could do re-shoots. If I could hire a director, I could fire a director.

I decided to make a movie out of pocket so I can do what I want the way I want.

This wasn't the first time I had this thought. Nor was it my first attempt. Before embarking on my Hollywood screenwriting career I tried making a 16 mm black and white feature. Unlike my student film, this time the script would not have any women getting sucked into closets. I couldn't afford dailies, or even someone to pick up the dailies. I used a lab that processed high school football footage. Which meant weeklies. We shot a week, I picked up the footage and looked at it on a hand-cranked viewer - it was just awful. You shoot 16mm TriX you need some contrast.

My DP was hired largely because he owned an Arri 16BL. When he lit using soft lights or bounced light--I thought he was doing something more advanced than that old fashioned key, fill and back light method.

Had he studied and found the worst way to light this kind of film, he would have lit it the way he lit it. But the biggest problem was not the cinematography, it was the acting.

A few years later I saved up money and went back and did it again. This time with a 35mm Cameraflex (a crudely-made but functional American version of the original Arri I m.o.s. camera) I had hard-fronted for Nikon lenses. And I shot on 35mm color short ends. Mostly 5247. I was a one man crew.

I would have finished it, but Hollywood came knocking on my door with fists full of cash.

So now I'm ready to return to world of extremely independent movies.

I was very interested in video, because if you're going to make a movie by your lonesome, it's very hard to do on film. Loading magazines, loading the camera, unloading the camera, the cans, the bags, the tape, the refrigerator, the trip to the the lab. Every second that camera is ticking away is a dollar. Everytime you pull the trigger on the camera it costs you. There is tension as you shoot and more tension as you get to the end of the roll. And when you have to change the rolls, which means short ends, more cans, more bags. And I was already shooting on short ends.

With video, I could shoot and go home and start editing. I had seen someone edit video with hard drives, something called non-linear editing and that was fantastic, some. I wanted to do that.

I saw some Dogme 95 films which were made largely by available light, and I didn't have an issue with the lighting, but I wasn't crazy about the look of video.

I wanted to make a movie on the cheap that didn't look cheap.

And then Sony introduced the 24p F900, I went to my first NAB and I saw it being shown on a high definition monitor . Now that looked pretty good. I could make a movie with that.

So I bought the camera, and I got a an Apple G4, a Cinewave card with the high def option and a high speed array. And Final Cut Pro.

I tried shooting footage of my girlfriend making stew, footage I would use to learn the editing programs, but that didn't cut together. It wasn't a story. So I did an experiment.

I wrote a 10 page, ten minute short. I would shoot it in one day. Actors would be women. They would do their costumes, their own make up and hair. I would shoot it with a 3 man crew and that included me. No professionals. One crew member was a focus puller, and he did sound. The other was Andrew Chiaramonte, who was a writer/director also on the digi-movie bandwagon I hd met at BandPro (where I bought the camera). Andrew and I shared camera duties.

I would not have a shot list.

We would shoot all available light.

Actors would be miked with lavaliers and wireless transmitters into one channel. We'd cover this with a boom on the other channel.

The theory was simple. Two crucial elements - script and performance.

We shot it in under 8 hours, with a location change. And at the end of the shoot, we went over to my house and played it back. There was no effort to make it look pretty, but it ended up looking pretty good. Not great, but not bad.

I cut it together and I'd show it to people, anybody who wasn't a DP was very impressed with the look.

But I had some issues with it, and I learned a few things that I would change.

1. I didn't want to hold the camera--I love operating, but it's hard to concentrate on performances and composition at the same time. Plus, I wanted someone, an expert, to be thinking about composition, lighting and lenses, and the camera.

Plus, while shooting the great the experiment, we had failed to record 4 out of 4 takes of the most crucial reaction shot of the story. A professional would be less likely to make that mistake.

2. I wanted a sound man who - a professional would know that when he couldn't hear sound in the headphones, and level meters weren't moving, would know that's a problem.

3. We'd have a costumer, a production designer. All department heads would get interns. All interns would be paid minimum wage - but paid. I had learned long ago that unpaid interns have a way of not showing up a few days into the shoot.

I had ran this idea of shooting with available light past a few Dps, and all of them didn't like it. They all had the same compaints, same problems, but most of the problems had workarounds. For instance they all mentioned the room with four white walls. That's not a big deal; just don't shoot in a room with four white walls.

So I told the DP--David Mullen--that he would go on scouts and he could veto anything on grounds that it wouldn't look good, or if it didn't have good natural light. There were a couple of rooms with white walls. We painted them.

Oddly enough, David didn't veto anything. I was willing to stage the actors where the light looked good. Turns out you could pretty much stage the actors where you wanted and simply put the camera in the place that took advantage of the light. Back light or side light was the rule; it maintained a consistent look consistent and it looked good.

And I wasn't going to be a Nazi about the available light issue. That's not the point. The point is not waiting. If you're waiting, you're paying and I couldn't afford that.

I borrowed some Kinoflos from another writer who was also on the digital movie kick. He warned me - don't take them all. Why not? Because you might use them. I took a chance.

We shot about half the movie with available light, and the other half with one Kino-Flo. A handful of scenes where shot with multiple lights.

And we had the use the Zeiss Dig-Primes. Which are great - when you shoot avaiable light, you don't have much light to work with, that's when they work their best - which is wide open.

And it came out pretty well. I've shown it to a number of friends - producers and directors who were very impressed by what they saw.

They expected a cheap-looking digi-movie, and what they saw looked to them like a read movie with a real budget. And when I told them it was DGA, WGA and SAG, and the movie came in at a little over 100 thousand - they were literally overwhelmed.

One producer took a look at my film and started peppering me with questions about what this cost and what that cost. He had a project and before he saw my film he didn't think he had enough money to make it. He had 3 million dollars.

And I thought, wow, I could've gone crazy and spent another 25k on locations, but 3 million? I gotta start thinking like a real Hollywood producer. How could I spend 3 million dollars?

Well, it's always nice to be nice to the crew, so let's say I give every department head 1000 dollar a day raise, and I double the meal costs, and at every meal, I serve an '89 Margaux ($240) I added it up; nowhere near 1 million, let alone 3 million.

Budgeting is not easy. Clearly I would have to roll up my sleeves and do some serious work.

I give every member of the crew including interns a 2000 dollar a day raise, a limo, and a limo driver, I tripled the catering budge and now I'm serving '70 Margaux. I ad up the numbers.

It was humiliating. I'm gonna have to do some extreme budget juggling.

I put on my Hollywood hat and it took some time, but I finally came up with a workable 3 million dollar budget.

Every day, every department head, every crew member including interns, gets their own stretch limo (200), limo driver (150), a 10 course meal by a 3 star chef (200), their own bottle of '61 Petrus (5000), a bottle Dom Perignon, an ounce of Beluga caviar, a pound of fois gras, their own trailer (200), a massage (100), one box of Cohibas, two hookers(2x500), two grams of cocaine (100), a 10,000 dollar a day bonus.

And there's still money left over for on call ambulance on the set - which we'd probably need. And two heart by-passes.

Okay, we're going to show you the film. I assembled some scenes and some shots largely to give you an idea of the structure. You don't get the funny stuff, or nuances, or it doesn't show off the performances. But you'll get an idea of how the money plays.

If you want to see the prettiest footage from the movie, go to the BandPro booth, they'll be showing it there.

 

 

Sponsored by

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CML Home CML-Tests Home

© copyright CML - Cinematography Mailing List all rights reserved