Join our mailing list

* indicates required

 

SHARE THIS SITE

Share |

Every couple of weeks I am sitting down with a filmmaker I admire to discuss their experience making their first film and any advice they have to share. Check back to see who's coming up next!

Tuesday
Jan112011

Director Jon Amiel

I sat down with director, Jon Amiel, to discuss the making of his first film, "Queen of Hearts." Jon has also directed such films as "Copycat," "Entrapment," "Sommersby," "The Man Who Knew Too Little" and "Creation," which opened the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. And he also gave me my first job as a P.A.!

Jocelyn: Could you set the stage for us, where you were in your career when you first got presented with the opportunity to direct your first feature, “Queen of Hearts.” 

Jon: I never wanted to be a director of any kind, let alone a film director. I blundered into it, after desperately trying to do every other job in theatre. I got involved in theater in university because I wrote music. So I started writing music for plays and when I finished school I found a wonderful job with one of my dearest friends, John Madden, we ran a theatre company, taking productions of Shakespeare on these six-week tours of the states. It was divine. It was the most incredible job between university and real life. I got a job as the literary manager at a wonderful small fringe theatre with original works by new writers. I always believed that directors were some kind of visionaries, that they had some God-given quality that I knew I didn’t have. They had visions, I couldn’t be a movie director any more than I could be Van Gogh or Nijinsky. I would work very closely with these writers and then hand them over to these so-called directors and watch them fuck them up. I thought well I could fuck that script up just about as well as that guy just did. That’s what started me. I wish I could say it was a burning desire to be a director, but it wasn’t. My first production was a modest success, I discovered that directing is a kind of crack addiction, the high is so intense, you’re hooked almost instantly, and however low you get thereafter you still find yourself pursuing the memory of that elusive high. My second production was a catastrophe, awful, almost had a nervous breakdown. I finally made it to the giddy heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company where I directed my first Shakespeare production with Ian McKellan.

Jocelyn: Wait, if your previous productions were so-called catastrophes, how did you land into such good company?

Jon: I have the resume of an ambitious person, but the fact is I never really considered myself that ambitious. The only habit I have, and maybe my shrink can understand this a lot better than I do, is that given two choices, I have always chosen to do the thing that scared me more. So, I’ve almost consistently been the coward hanging out in the front line. When I got hired by the RSC, I guess they mistook my complete fatalistic belief that there was no way they were going to ever give me this job as a kind of cool and they offered it to me. I was an assistant director for a year and a half. The first production I directed there was “Twelfth Night” and ten days before it opened I got fired.

J: Ten days before!

Jon: Yeah, it was very common at the RSC that one of the senior directors would take over a production, but it was devastating to me. I’d always felt like I wasn’t really a director, I was just pretending to be one. I felt like a kid wearing my Dad’s jacket. I felt exposed and humiliated, swearing I’d never direct again.

J: How did you pick yourself up and move on?

Jon: I decided I’d produce in television instead. I thought any idiot can produce. And that was a sharp learning curve because I went to the head of BBC drama, said I wanted to produce and he said, all right, terrific, and what product do you have? And I thought, product??? I didn’t realize producers had to have product, I thought it was just a job you did. I found a project and got myself attached to produce it, but again something oddly intervened. I had applied to do a director’s course at the BBC. It was an eight week course for people who knew actors, knew script, knew directing, the idea was to teach them how to use cameras and bring them into the great BBC drama-making machine. I had applied for that while still at the RSC. I got a job as a story editor at the BBC, it was a comedown from being a director, but I had a quite a lot of power with no responsibility. I got to work with writers on their scripts and I got to watch first time filmmakers shooting their scripts and generally fucking them up. I almost turned down the director’s course, I had a good job as story editor, and I think my indifference got misinterpreted by the interviewer as cool and sang froid and I was offered a place in the course. It was one of the most interestingly accelerated things I’ve ever done. It was like learning how to sail on an ocean liner. It was the most quietly competitive environment I’ve ever been in, with nine other young theatre directors, even though it was quite amicable. We came out of that with a fifteen-minute multi-camera studio drama and a five minute piece of film, which we then toted around the fifth floor of the BBC, where are all the drama producers were. I was very lucky because I’d already made a lot of relationships and I got offered work right away. I very quickly acquired the habit of saying no to things, which did not always make me friends. You were expected to take everything you were offered and I wouldn’t. I discovered that unemployment is painful, but there is nothing more painful than false employment. It’s horrible to impersonate enthusiasm for the project you’re doing. I learned to be very prepared. To this day I can’t walk on to a set without knowing that I have a plan. That was very important for me. Working at the BBC you had the privilege of learning to fail in obscurity and that’s something that is denied to most kids now, starting out. It’s hard to make a film and fail in obscurity as well as television. In those days you could.

J: What happened next?

Jon: I was shown the script for “The Singing Detective.” The script was a masterpiece. More often when you get a script, you think, how can I elevate this material? It was the first time I’d ever read a script where I thought, how can I ever live up to this writing? I eventually got the job because five better-known directors turned it down. So I blundered into it. That really changed the game for me. To my enormous surprise and endless gratitude I got calls from Hollywood. This was astonishing to me because in England every laborious step I’d taken from fringe theatre to the RSC to the BBC was always met by the cheek-sucking British skeptism of “well, um, he can do this, but he can’t do that…” Whereas, Hollywood was offering me jobs as a filmmaker. That bond of gratitude has never been severed by all of its subsequent abuses and neglects.

That is when I was given “Queen of Hearts.” It arrived at just the right moment for me.

J: When you first read the script what appealed to you about the project and what state was the script in?

Jon: I immediately responded to the interface between fact and fiction, dreams and reality, and I could see the possibility of a lot of playfulness, it was something I had explored in “The Singing Detective”. I saw the chance to do that in a story about Italian immigrants, but told by a ten-year old boy. It was a beautiful mixture of fable and social naturalism. I saw parallels between the story of these Italian immigrants in London and my own Jewish upbringing and my own immigrant experience, my grandfather was from Poland and spent his life wrestling with the English language. It was very easy to take my own personal anecdotes with family and identity and I found them enormously interchangeable. Tony Grisoni, a wonderful writer, was my brother in all of this. We worked in such a loving way, he allowed me to bring an enormous amount of my own material to the movie. We made the script a lot more ambitious, the emotional reach of it widened, it moved from wild, fanciful comedy to quite dark. We expanded the visual range of it. The opening should be utterly operatic because you want to imagine it the way a child imagines it. I had a huge fight with the financiers because they want wanted to shoot the opening sequence in a studio and I had to persuade them that this little movie needed to be given a special kind of treatment. In that sense I was very ambitious. That was how the project began for me.

J: It’s operatic not only in the way that you shot it, but just in the time it takes to unfold because it rocks the viewer off their balance. I was sitting there saying, “Wait, what’s going on?”

Jon: Yeah, I love it when movies pull the rug out from under you. The first ten minutes of this movie are a glorious misdirect, which I find irresistible; they seduce you and take you into a world where you accept that the rules are going to be different. If you get it right, the audience will say okay, take me, I’m in for the ride. If you can do that in the first ten minutes of your film, you’ve done a vast amount. Give an audience a good first ten minutes and a cracking last five minutes and it’s amazing what you can get away with the other hour and thirty!

I don’t want this film to be lit, I want it to be illuminated.

J: Can you talk about finding your cinematographer and the prep you did together.

Jon: I knew I wanted this lush vivid look and I turned to someone I had worked with before, Mike Southon. I said to him, “I don’t want this film to be lit, I want it to be illuminated.” I want a feeling that these characters faces are glowing as though there’s some inner light to them. So with Mike and my beautiful production designer, Jim Clay, that I’d done “The Singing Detective” with, we set about creating this luminous feeling to the world, a world that was both tangible and real, but also that wasn’t quite of now. It was a remembered world and something that you discover at the very end of the film with the voiceover from the adult boy, that the whole story is circumscribed by memory so belongs in a world that may or may not have been entirely real because it’s passed through the prism of memory. So we set about creating this heightened magical world that was both contemporary but also period. It was a lovely line to walk in terms of both design and lighting. I tend very much to favor dark backgrounds because what I find with them is that the faces of the actors seem to float and be luminous, you get tremendous separation between the face in the foreground and the background falls away. The face has this wonderful Rembrandt-ish quality to it. Something I took even further in “Sommersby”.

J: Did you have a shot list?

Jon: I believe that any young director, who walks on the set with a shot list for scenes that essentially involve two people in a room, should themselves be shot.

J: Because?

Jon: You know shot lists essentially exist to make producers and first a.d.’s happy, but what they do is cripple the creativity of all the other people you have around you when they use them the wrong way. I think I should backtrack a little bit and talk about casting and rehearsal because those two things are crucial and more often than not, I find that first time directors have no idea how to bring that world to life with actors. That tends to be the biggest problem that first time directors have to deal with. Their tendency is to over prepare and in so doing squish the life out of their actors. I would love to talk about the auditioning process and then about rehearsal process.

J: Let’s do it!

Jon: I have, I admit, an extremely eccentric auditioning process. I have come to believe that asking an actor to read was no way to find out if they could act. You find out whether an actor can read well or not. More often than not, great actors are horrible readers. And great readers are frequently not great actors. They’re good performers, but you know reading in an audition is performing, it’s not acting. So frequently I discovered that this actor that was giving you this great reading was giving you everything they had, there was no journey, there was no discovery. I decided I would not attempt to find out whether an actor could act in my auditions. I would attempt to find out who I was talking to and whether or not the prospect of working with that actor on that role interested me. It needs to feel like it’s going to be fun and exciting. I would trust that feeling. You have 15-20 minutes to get to know a person in the audition room and how do you do that when each person walks in armored? They’re armored because they’re afraid, because they’re angry, they’re angry because they’ve spent the last three days agonizing about what they’re going to wear, how should they prep, and they’re going to walk into a room where yet another asshole is going to say to them, “Tell me what you’ve been doing lately,” when they should have read your fucking resume. Of course they’re armored. They’re armored because they’re going to be humiliated and rejected and how do you protect yourself against that? So I accept that I’ve got the first five minutes to reassure the actor that I’m not that kind of asshole. I’m very careful about how I set up an audition room. I make sure that seating is non-hierarchical, there’s no director’s chair, there’s no casting couch, there’s no desk, there’s just a group of chairs in the round. I try not to have a camera on a tripod because immediately the actor goes, “Oh, where do I sit?” I have the casting director hand hold a camera and move around. It makes for very shaky things and producers always bitch and moan about it, but I don’t care. I put out snacks, it’s all about subverting expectation and catching people unawares in a benign way because that’s essentially what I’m trying to do. I’m really not interested in the person they’ve chosen to come and present to me, they may have got that completely wrong and I don’t want to judge them on the basis of the person they thought I wanted. So I spend the first five minutes letting them know that this will be different, I’m not that kind of asshole. I’ll then see whether they’re willing to come and play with me. Shakespeare called us players and I think that’s our job, to play. I’ll do almost anything to get through an actor’s defenses to get to something that is real and pertinent about them. I’ll talk to them about their childhoods, their parents, their families, their relationships. And somehow, actors know instinctively why and they’re willing to go there because they understand that they’re being asked to engage emotionally. I’ve had people sobbing and saying, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, I haven’t even told my therapist this shit.” And it’s okay because I asked and I’m listening. Sometimes I’ll talk a lot because I want to see how an actor listens. Listening is one of the most difficult parts of acting. I’ll sometimes ask an actor whether they want to read or improvise. If they say read, I’ll very often go, “Okay, let’s read, here’s a newspaper. Read it to me. Now read it to me as though you were a doctor telling me I have two months to live. Now read it to me like you’re my best friend and we’ve had two cosmos in a bar and you’re telling me about this guy that hit on you last night.” I don’t want to have actors come in and read the roles they’re coming in for. It’s so boring, by the time I’ve heard twenty actors reading the same scene, I want to scream, I never want to direct that scene ever again. Or I’ll improv. And if I’m asking an actor to make an ass of themselves I think it’s only fair that I do too. That’s fair.

J: Let’s talk about your rehearsal process.

Jon: In “Queen of Hearts” I very quickly found that there were very few Italian British immigrant actors who were right for these roles. I found a wildly disparate bunch of actors that I had to cast to make up this family. Finding the kid was the hardest part. They are the best technical actors you will ever work with and I use that advisedly. They can do the most complex things over and over again for you as long as you know what are the right things to dial in with them. The kid who played Eddie, the little boy, had never acted before. He was so overwhelmingly shy, I thought he couldn’t survive the rough and tumble. But with kids I’m a great believer that you have to do callbacks. Bringing them back gives them a kind of confidence. The second time he walked into the room and said, “Hello, Jon!” I thought, hey, there’s something. There was already a little cockiness that he’d been chosen to come back. I brought him back a third time because I wasn’t sure if he could handle the complex, emotional stuff. I gave him an improv. I said, I want you to imagine that your mom’s been very sick and she’s been taken to the hospital. You go to see her and the moment you do, you know she’s going to die. And you feel sick, and you feel like screaming. And she says, “Please tell you sister that I’m sorry, but I’m just too tired.” So you go out and see your little sister and she looks so little and so scared that you know you’ve got to lie. You have to tell her that mom can’t see her right now, but everything’s going to be fine. And I was going to play his little sister. The first time he did it, I said, I know you’re lying, you’re playing the lie, I need you to be better at lying, but at the same time I really want to know that you feel like your heart’s just going to explode. The next time he did it, he had me and the casting director crying, he was lying so bravely to his little sister and at the same time his eyes were so full of pain. He was wonderful.

The rehearsal room was really where I brought the family together. I went to Italy to cast three roles. The task was to create a world. I hate movies where it’s really obvious from the moment that you starting watching that these actors just met each other on the set. Intimacy is not about what’s said, it’s about what’s unsaid. I love watching movies sets, when you’re all on location and sooner or later somebody starts fucking somebody else and they’re both desperately trying to keep it a secret. You look for these little signs, like, he reaches across her, takes one of her cigarettes, takes her lighter, lights it- they’re fucking. He doesn’t ask for anything, he just takes it, doesn’t say thanks, it’s like that, they’re fucking. You know a dinner table when a family’s eating, it’s not like anyone says, “Oh, sorry, could you pass me the salt, please?” It’s all of that stuff. We rehearsed for two weeks. All of the guys, when they weren’t rehearsing, were playing cards together in character. I never rehearsed the dinner scene that we shot, but I rehearsed a dozen different dinner scenes.

I’m a great believer in rehearsal, a lot of actors working in film are terrified of it, they feel you’re going to steal their magic, their spontaneity is going to be lost. I’m at pains to reassure actors that rehearsal is not about achieving the scene or the moment, it’s about achieving consensus on what we want to achieve in the scene.

J: And back to what you were saying about shot lists…

Jon: I’ve seen directors walk into rehearsal rooms with story boards and I really do want to slap them because I see the moment the actor spots the story boards, their heart sinks. I’ve done it, I used to do it and it’s just a horrendous mistake. You have to shoot certain scenes with story boards, visual effects, stunt scenes etc. But 90% of all film is people talking to each other in rooms. Somehow it’s still the most difficult scene to shoot: two people talking in a room. How do you avoid it without doing the boring television coverage, you know wide-shot master, over shoulder, over shoulder, close-up, close-up? I used to make the mistake of over-preparing. I’ve learned to relinquish control.  I’m a great believer in rehearsal, a lot of actors working in film are terrified of it, they feel you’re going to steal their magic, their spontaneity is going to be lost. I’m at pains to reassure actors that rehearsal is not about achieving the scene or the moment, it’s about achieving consensus on what we want to achieve in the scene. If we can walk on to the set with that we’re good. What I learned to do was—I never sit down during rehearsal, I’m always standing, I’m always on the move and sometimes I’m right up close to the actor and I’m just standing there right in their faces and should they feel intruded on, yes, they should, but they don’t because they feel instinctively that they’re in close-up. By moving around, as we go through the scene, we’re finding a rhythm, a movement, that’s truthful and honest for them, I’m actually discovering what my shots are going to be. By the time a scene has come true for the actors, I know what my shots are because I’ve been walking them. And I’ll ask them if they feel like we’ve got it and they’ll say, yeah, and then I’ll ask them to just walk through and mark it for me so I can figure out my shots. I’ll jot things down in my script, I often have a little floor plan of the set and I’ll mark where they stood and where I thought the cameras were going to be. Now when I walk on to a set, will I flash that to everybody? Absolutely not. Again shot lists- sure if you’ve got 300 extras etc. I tend to get on the set with the actors, everybody out except for an a.d., script supervisor, d.p. and let them find their space on the set. While they’re rehearsing the scene, I’m walking around as I usually do and the d.p. is watching me, so by the time we bring everybody in and show them, the d.p. knows what the shots are. I’ll ask if anybody’s got any good ideas. I always walk in with a plan, if I didn’t I’d feel like I was drowning and suffocating at the same time, I’d feel so scared, but I also secretly believe that my plan must be mediocre and there must be a better one and I always solicit the better idea from anybody who wants to offer one.

J: What’s the best advice you ever got from a mentor?

Jon: You know, I wish I’d had mentors, I spent a lot of time mentoring people, trying to de-mystify what exactly directors do and start to give possible frameworks in the eternally shifting business of making a movie. Nobody ever told me that stuff. The course at BBC was just technical. I learned a great deal from two directors, Mike Leigh and Les Blair, about using improv and how to create it and set it up. I don’t use improv to make my films, but I use it as a tool to unlock scenes, it’s priceless.

Directing is not for the faint of heart. It’s definitely not what you want to do if you want any sense of security. And as much as it seems like it’s the most powerful job in the business, it’s not. It’s essentially like you’re the dictator of some small Caribbean island. You are an absolute monarch of your little domain of 300 subjects, but if America decides it wants you out, then you’re gone!

The ability to lie with the camera while you’re actually illuminating a truth, endlessly fascinates me. And the way life shapes film, but films shapes life, that incredible symbiotic interchange that happens, interests me. 

J: Do you feel there are themes that are a through-line in your films?

Jon: I’ve spent a career trying to elude categorization in terms of movies I’ve made the styles, and the content. You know, I’ve made a wildly divergent bunch of films. At the time I thought was doing a smart thing to elude categorization, but what I didn’t realize is that we’ve moved more and more into the age of specialization and these days that’s what it’s all about. I never wanted to repeat myself and always wanted to challenge myself. That choice slightly backfired. I love keeping myself scared, it keeps me honest. I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which art and fiction and dream interface with life and fact and reality. Film seems uniquely equipped to deal with that. The ability to lie with the camera while you’re actually illuminating a truth, endlessly fascinates me. And the way life shapes film, but films shapes life, that incredible symbiotic interchange that happens, interests me. All of my films are extremely humanist, even my serial killers and villains are real people with whom I can personally connect. Every movie I make I think of as time spent in a locked room with a very small group of people and those people are the characters in the film as well as the actors. And I insist that I know those people and care about them. I think a kind of affection for people and ultimately a kind of optimism about human beings characterizes the films I make. I’m a great believer in what love moving through pain towards understanding can achieve. I’m fascinated by the stories about bad people, who are somehow inadvertently suckered into doing good things and in the process discover worth in themselves. Sommersby is very much that story. That thematically, interests me, a film like “Salvador,” Oliver Stone’s film. Stories like that haunt me because they are ultimately redemptive.

 

 

Tuesday
Dec072010

Filmmaker Marianna Palka

Marianna Palka is the writer/director/actor of “Good Dick,” a film which premiered at Sundance in 2008. “Good Dick” had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival, where Marianna was honored with the New Director’s Award. Marianna was most recently asked to be a Sloan Juror with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

 

Jocelyn: What was the inspiration for your screenplay, “Good Dick”?

Marianna: I was really frustrated at that time with some of the auditions I was going on as an actress and felt like I could do more. I had been doing a lot of theatre in New York, where I had felt really open and relaxed with my job as an actress. I wanted to do something on film that was more interesting than anything that I’d gone out for before. So it was that kind of frustration that made me decide to write the script in secret. I wrote it and showed it to people, which was a good way to have the script evolve. It was an organic process, it was not something that I planned really.

Jocelyn: Had you ever written anything before?

Marianna: It was the first thing I ever wrote. I was really driven to write it for another reason; I heard this statistic that one in three women are sexually abused before the age of 16 so that was overwhelming to me. It was shocking.

J: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

M: The first thing I wrote was 60 pages. After a read-through of it I realized it was a feature and it needed to be longer. All in all, it took me about six-months to write it.

J: You knew you wanted to act in it, but did you know you wanted to direct it right away?

M: Not initially. I thought that your brother (Nicholas Towne) was going to direct it.

J: Oh, that’s right!

M: Yeah, I thought, Nick will direct this and it would have been great, but then I realized that I could do it. I was a little bit scared, but then I realized that there really isn’t a set of rules, that you don’t have to go to film school in order to be a director, you can just direct a film and then you’re a director.

 

J: How did you go about finding people to work with you? How did you find your producers?

M: Jason (Ritter) and I were at a party- Jason and I already had a production company and knew we were going to produce the movie- so we were talking to Cora and Jen (of Present Pictures) about what we wanted to do and they were really interested in it. They were about to start shooting “The Babysitters” in New York, so they went and did that. They were still talking to me and really excited about it. I met them in the February before the fall shoot so it was very fast.

J: So once you had them on board, how did you start assembling the team?

M: In my mind, the actors were the most important people to first find along with the dp. Cora and Jen introduced me to Andre Lascaris (director of photography) and Christopher Kroll (editor). With the actors, I had written the parts for people I knew so everybody in the film was basically my friend. I gave them the script, they were excited about doing it, that’s how it all came together.

J: What was your meeting like with Andre? Is he the only dp you met with?

M: He was the first and only because the minute I met him we just clicked. He just understood it, he understood what it was that was required from him. He hadn’t ever worked with anyone who had directed something that they were acting in, but it was clear to me that he got what that would require. We had an instant rapport and that was my most exciting journey with the entire film. I could say that, creatively, working with Andre sort of birthed me as a director.

J: Did you audition anyone for the film?

M: No. The only person I didn’t know was Martin Starr, and I had originally written the part for my friend, Jeremy Strong, but he was the lead in “Humboldt County." I met Martin for coffee, he had read the script and liked it. And he was also driving a red Honda Civic, which is the car in the movie, so clearly (laugh), it was meant to be. This is how I make my decisions!

And with the actors, I basically had the opinion that we were doing a play for the crew so that we could have done “Good Dick” the play as we began shooting on day one. 

J: How did you begin to prepare yourself- as an actor, as the director?

M: My plan was to be as prepared as I possibly could be because I didn’t know how much energy it was going to take, what it was going to mean to direct it, but I did know what it was going to take as the actress. I knew a lot of variables were going to come up while shooting and there was going to be a lot of stress.  People tell you that on your first feature as a director, whether you’re acting in it or not, you’re going to meet with challenges. I knew if I was as prepared as possible with Andre beforehand then we would be telepathic on set. And with the actors, I basically had the opinion that we were doing a play for the crew so that we could have done “Good Dick” the play as we began shooting on day one. Everybody knew their lines and what the point of every scene was. We also didn’t have a lot of time, we shot for 17 days so… Pre-production was more stressful in a way than shooting because it took a lot of energy and you’re not getting a final product at that point.

J: Could you talk more about how you prepped with Andre?

M: We met many times. I remember him showing me an image early on of who he thought the woman was, the vibe of her world. It was really dark, there was something about it that was kind of gross, seedy. And that wasn’t her world. I showed him a picture of a naked woman who was very well lit in a white room, there was something about it that was very intimate and beautiful. And I said this is what we’re trying to draw out from her. He instantly got what I was talking about. And that the sexy in the film has nothing gross about it, there’s a sort of innocence to it. We talked about how Jason’s character brings light into her life and so the entire film goes from dark into a much lighter place. Andre was initially shocked that I wanted to shoot everything in wides. He said we couldn’t only do that. And thank god for him because if we had shot the whole thing in wides, it would not have become the film that it did.

J: What exactly did he say to you about that?

M: He said that we were going to want to be able to cut into stuff, we would want those options, of close-ups on people, and have inserts.

J: Why did you want it to be in wides?

M: I was coming so much from scenes from 1970s films, that are just allowed to play out. I like the audience watching a shot of the entire scene as opposed to being manipulated by coming in closer. It was also driven by the sense that it’s a very voyeuristic film, that she’s watching videos all the time and he’s watching her all the time. Thank god we had the close-ups!

J: Did you have a shot list?

M: Yeah. Most of the time we knew how it was going to be framed. But practically when you get into the room, you have to make adjustments sometimes.

I wanted it to look like a specific camera that my Mom used when we were growing up, which she still has. My Mom calls her Nikon her first child.

J: What camera did you use?

M: Sony F900. I wanted it to look like a specific camera that my Mom used when we were growing up, which she still has. My Mom calls her Nikon her first child. She’s a photographer. She had this very specific way of taking a photograph and it was the way I wanted the film to look. I showed Andre a lot of those images. I like the depth of field that she used and that’s what we did.

J: Did you do any re-shoots?

M: No. Probably because we didn’t have any money, but also we didn’t really need them, it never really came up. I remember on day 18, the day we were done I was sitting in my pajamas, watching tv and I realized that I’d gotten everything I wanted as the director. I had this pre-conceived notion that I wasn’t going to get some of it because it was an indie film. And when the cast is well-rehearsed you’ve got something really elegant because you’ve got the actors bringing different colors to it and they found five different ways to do the scene, so if you can shoot those five different versions then you have choices.

J: How much did you say to your actors during rehearsal? And was there a learning curve for you as you figured out how to communicate with them?

M: I told them they had to be off-book for rehearsal. We did the scenes over and over again so that they were able to find different colors. I really believe in giving actors time and I think everyone works differently. I gave them bios and explained their relationships to each other and what specific lines might mean. It was such a pleasure and would encourage them when I felt that they were really on the right line. I don’t like to be critical of actors, I don’t think that it’s helpful. You just have to encourage what’s in them that’s really unique, that no one else could do, then that becomes what the character is and that becomes what film is. It’s a combination of everybody doing their best.

J: You have a bunch of scenes that are just you and Jason, how did you work on those? Were you two alone?

M: We had a friend of mine, Amberlee Colson, come in and she was on-book for us. That helped us too, because we were in our apartment so it helped that she was there.

J: Did you record any rehearsals so that you could watch them?

M: No, I knew that I could do that if I needed to, but I felt that finding the character’s journey through the script was enough. After rehearsals, I would just review the scenes in my mind. And that muscle was another sense that I didn’t know I had, and it became the barometer that I used when I was shooting.

J: Did you end up watching much playback when you were shooting?

M: Initially that was the plan, I was excited about it as a concept, but then we got to the day and I watched it and I thought, yeah, that’s great. Then it became unnecessary to watch playback and it was time-consuming and it was fun to keep moving.

J: There are so many highly emotional scenes for your character, did you feel that you were preparing while you were directing or did you have to take time out to prepare?

M: I got to this place in rehearsal where I had a varied number of ways to play each scene. By the time I got to the day, it became about just doing those different things. If it was really emotional, I couldn’t talk to Andre or the costume designer or the make-up artist. It was not much time, I would just take a little moment.

J: Did people instinctively know to give you space?

M: Everyone’s doing their job, asking questions of you as the director. The only time I really had a quiet moment was in the make-up chair. I remember those were meditative moments. And when I would go to sleep at night, those were the only quiet moments. Everything else was calm, but not quiet. It’s interesting to have to do a really emotional scene and then joke around after, but as actors we do it all the time.

J: I got to visit your set a couple of times and it was amazingly focused and calm. It looked very meditative.

M: That was the plan, I’m glad it worked.

I think everyone has those panic voices in their head. Because you have to jump off a cliff and why would you want to do that? Why would you want to go there when you could just stay at home in your pajamas all day?

J: Did you have any doubts or worries while you were shooting? Any personal freak outs?

M: I think everyone has those panic voices in their head. Because you have to jump off a cliff and why would you want to do that? Why would you want to go there when you could just stay at home in your pajamas all day? It’s scary. I know Meryl Streep, every time she gets a part, she thinks, “Oh I’m not an actress. I can’t do this.” I think it’s incredible that she admits to those voices. You just have to turn them down, and turn up the volume on the voices that tell you that you can do it. I felt like I had a purpose too, to give voice to people who have been sexually abused. The important thing is to be confident and you forget that you fall off the cliff. It’s good for the captain of the ship not to be freaking out because I’ve been on sets like that.

J: I know you watched a lot of films before you shot this and that you watched certain ones over and over again. Which ones?

M: I watched a lot of erotica, but that was separate. I really like Krzysztof Kieslowski and any Polish director from the 80s like Agnieszka Holland, and I would watch them on mute. It enabled me to see the film from the shots only. That was enlightening. I like to do that with any film that’s impacted me.

J: You’re very inspired by the work of Peter Mullan and he’s been your mentor for many years. Did you talk to him before you shot this and did you ask him for advice? And if so, what was it?

M: I don’t have a memory of what happened before I shot the film, because I probably blocked it out. I’m not sure if I sent him the script. I think he knew I was shooting a film. But it was such an audacious move for me personally. I was in such an identity shift artistically that I don’t remember if he said something to me before. I’m sure he was really nice. I do remember him seeing the film, which was an incredible moment for me. I showed him the rough cut on my laptop, which was 1 hour 40 minutes. He had to wear headphones, I was freaking out. I left him in my hotel room in Scotland and then I came back. I was so terrified. I thought he was going to kill me, I mean he’s a nice man, there’s no reason why I would think that, it’s just that artistic thing of it could all be over. He said it was a gem of a film. That was really the end of something for me, his opinion is so important to me, I can’t explain it, it was so much, it was such a big deal. That was the first big epic shock of the movie. The hour and a half version went to Sundance. Peter had notes, he said that it was too long. He said that it wasn’t “War and Peace.”

J: The Woman in G.D. spends most of the story trying to drive the Man away. Were you concerned with whether or not people would embrace her because she was pushing so hard against a very warm character, the Man?

M: I don’t know that I thought about it early on, but it became something that I had to think about because there are moments where she is both pushing and pulling him. I didn’t want her condition to be unrealistic, she’s not a normal character and neither is he. I think that by going full force with all of the moments, the ones that are beautiful between them are very beautiful and the ones that are difficult are very difficult. In the cutting room I could have made the version where she was this awful person or where she’s a very simple, sweet girl. I think that she’s both. And we were able to cut it that way.  That’s how she was in the script anyway. The negative moments with her are balanced by the reasons he would stay with her.

J: How did you feel when you first watched the dailies in the editing room?

M: My editor assembled the rough cut on his own, it was the film as the script is written. He asked if I wanted to start from the assembly or from scratch and I said, from scratch. I hadn’t seen all the dailies yet. I wanted to be meticulous with it.

Someone said, you write one film, you direct another film, you cut a different one and then people see a fourth! It’s true.

J: Did you end up cutting any of it together that was not how it was originally written in the script?

M: Oh yeah. We made the director’s cut. Chris was great to work with, we were so on the page, and he was also so practical, he was able to give me stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to envision.

J: So you flipped certain scenes around?

M: Yes.

J: And it worked continuity-wise?

M: It did. The third part of the film needed to have a drive that it didn’t have in the original order that it was written in, so moving some scenes around gave us a really sharp arc. That, along with the notes from Peter Mullan that it was too long, made me realize that it had to be an entertaining film. The script was entertaining, but it wasn’t necessarily what the film became. I would never have been able to do those changes before that moment. Someone said, you write one film, you direct another film, you cut a different one and then people see a fourth! It’s true.

J: I find that people’s first films are auto-biographical in a certain way, it may not be the story that’s auto-biographical, but perhaps a theme that is. Do you find that to be true in this story?

M: It wasn’t auto-biographical. It was based on people who I know who were sexually abused in their childhood and some of them cannot have a functioning relationship. That was so compelling to me, and such an injustice that that could be taken from them: that the thing that could heal them, they cannot do. It drove me crazy, I don’t know why it drives me nuts, but it does. It’s just not fair. I feel very lucky not to have gone through something like that, and I wanted to give a voice to it. The themes that love can heal your life, or that if you stick with someone through something that’s difficult they’ll come around or a possibility that they will. That’s definitely a theme in my life. It’s the way that I’ve figured out what love maybe is- that in the face of the worst possible demons or tragedy you have optimism, that’s love.

J: In what way has directing your first film informed you as a writer? You’ve now written two new scripts…

M: I think having a first draft of anything is great. I go for the first draft really quickly because I can’t do an outline, I lose enthusiasm, I’ve tried and I just end up writing the script. I am maybe now a little less precious, my reverence is not gone, but I have more of a keen ear for what will just get cut.

J: By ‘precious’ what do you mean?

M: It’s your darling thing you’ve made. It’s like everybody can sing in the shower. I know so much more what the spine of the work is, what’s important versus what’s extra. “You have to kill your babies.” I’m capable of doing that now.

...your masterpiece is your life and your life is long.

J: Have you ever gotten advice from a filmmaker that you remember? Do you have any advice to share?

M: I had great advice from what I read. I read and re-read Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, listening to music, staying in the place of creativity and openness and not getting bogged down is really important. Once you’ve made something, you’ve made it and then you have to make another thing. And I think writers and filmmakers have that functioning in their brains at all times and so I always go back to Walt Whitman, it's not chaos and death- “It is formunionplan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.”

J: I like Walt Whitman...

M: Stick with the master plan: that your masterpiece is your life, and your life is long. 

 

 

(Check back! In a couple of days, the full interview will be here on video!)

 

 

 

Friday
Oct012010

I sat down with screenwriter, Roger Towne, to discuss his first filmmaking experience on “The Natural.” Oh, and he’s also my Dad!



Jocelyn: First, give us a little background on where you were in your career when you first read the novel, “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud.

Roger: I was working at Paramount Pictures as a story analyst for two years when I was hired as director of development for Robert Evan's Productions. First day on the job I walk through Evan’s door at Paramount and this big, broad-in-the-shoulders New Yorker in a suit and tie is standing there with open arms. It was Evans’ cousin, Jimmy Siff. He’s holding a book and says to me, “I think this would make a terrific film.” Just like that. It was “The Natural.” I went home that night, read it and couldn’t get it out of my head. Without really knowing it then, my life had changed forever. Jimmy and I proceeded to develop it as a feature. We learned that the rights were owned by a commercial producer/ director team, Buddy Kahn and Bob Bean, and they had developed a screenplay by Phil Dusenberry, which had already made the rounds to all the studios in town. Bean and Kahn came to California for a meeting and agreed to let us run with the material. I made a lot of notes, and met with Dusenberry at the Beverly Hills Hotel around the pool. We discussed the script and got along very well. We were in perfect synch. As it turned out, he was so busy as an executive at BBD&O he was unable to work on the script.

J: What was his script like, in relation to the novel?

R: It was much truer to the novel’s darkness, to Roy’s character, to his suffering and self- loathing, to his general hopelessness and view of himself in the eyes of say someone like Memo. Phil had a wonderful sense of humor and he and Bean authored the lights-out homerun.

J: So what happened then?

R: We tried packaging it, but got nowhere. I started work at Columbia studios as a story editor. Two years passed and one day I call Bob and Buddy. I said, “Guys, I’ve given a lot of thought to the material and I’d like to write a new draft.” And they said, ‘Okay’.

J: They were willing to give a new writer a shot? You didn’t have any material to show them?

R: Nothing at all. I was hired on the basis of my take on the story and the voluminous notes I’d made. Bean and Kahn paid me $30,000 to quit my job and write a first draft.

J: Nice.

R: Oh Yeah. My salary at Columbia was $40,000 a year. The job was secure, but the chance to get back on track as a writer felt like a gift from the gods especially as I was about the same age as Hobbs was when he showed up in the Knights’ stadium.

J: How long did it take you to write the first draft?

R: About four months.

J: What was the most challenging aspect of adapting the novel? What were the biggest changed elements between the novel and your screenplay?

R: Getting it right. Keeping the material under control. I had so many ideas and in my excitement my biggest fear was veering terribly off course. While the script contained many similarities to Malamud’s novel, it was equally unlike it. Our take was really a romanticized version of the book. What transported me about it was the sheer energy and force of its imagery all bundled up in this Arthurian story about a knight’s journey, his dream, his fall from grace, his attempt to regain it as he does battle with his personal demons and the forces of darkness and evil that haunt and try to hunt him down. Myth and legend all set against the pageantry of baseball. The themes of Malamud’s book remain pretty much the same: the mythological quest, suffering, pain, and redemption. In the book Roy agrees to throw the game, but in his last at-bat, has a change of heart, decides to swing away – and strikes out. Malamud was obsessed with his hero’s failings and was not about to relinquish them for any sentimental notions that Roy had learned from his past mistakes.

J: That seems like it would work better in the novel than on screen because you can’t see his good intentions.

R: Levinson and Redford agreed. We were not going to torment the audience with seeing our hero strike out. Besides, the lights-out homer is so transcendent that it just about eclipses the sentimentalism of the ending.

J: Was the magical realism already in the novel? Where did knocking the cover off the ball come from?

R: That came from the book. So much of it is influenced by Greek myth and symbolism associated with Arthurian lore. Roy’s feats at bat are truly Herculean. Wonder Boy (Roy’s bat) can be likened to Excalibur, drawn from stone by Arthur just as Roy’s bat is drawn from the tree where his father died. The lightning and Roy’s homer into the clock that stops time while Iris, like a shimmering goddess, watches. We simply expanded on it.

J: How long was your first draft? (Because he writes a lot!)

R: (laughing) Why do you remember these things? It was long. It was 180 pages. I write long and I’ve come to love the re-writing and editing process.

J: What did Bob and Buddy say when they got it?

R: They weren’t particularly impressed. They thought there was some good stuff in it. But after a first round of notes and a rewrite they decided to let me go.

J: Oh! (I never knew this)

R: Buddy and Bob said, “Look you took your best shot, it was a gamble, but you have a wife and kids, so I’m gonna give you another $30,000 so you can get back on your feet.” Can you imagine? Mensches. The downside -- Buddy decided to write his own draft. About a month later, I received a huge package.

J: Tell me his version was longer-

R: It was 300 plus pages. Kahn had dictated it to his secretary, God bless him. The project just seemed to die and go away. I took the 30K and began a new draft. It was very long. At the time, a dear friend of mine, and a screenwriter, Roy Rosenblatt, read it. He became my Maxwell Perkins and contributed mightily to help boil it down to 141 pages, as did Phil Breen, a long time friend and producer. I sent it to Bob and Buddy and they were impressed. They said, “You apparently know people around town, so run with it.” I called an agent at CAA, a young woman, Amy Grossman who became my agent. She knew me from Columbia and had been following my move and progress with the script. She also knew Barry Levinson who was a big fan of the novel. Amy read the script. A week or so later she calls and says, “Roger, Robert Redford wants to do ‘The Natural’.” I was stunned. Inconceivable. Lightning in a bottle.

J: Did you call Bob and Buddy and tell them about Redford?

R: Yes, that was pretty funny. I called Buddy and told him. He chuckled and said, “Roger, you’re so gullible, you can’t believe everything that people tell you.” And I said, “No, really, Buddy, he’s interested.” Buddy said, “Look, if Redford is so interested, he’s got an office here in New York. Tell him to come on over and tell us face to face.” I passed that on and as I understand the story, Redford got in his car, drove across town, walked up the stairs unannounced into Buddy’s offices, extended a handshake and said, “My name is Bob Redford and I want to do ‘The Natural’.” I only wish I could have been there to see their jaws drop. Within five months principal photography began.

“Redford got in his car, drove across town, walked up the stairs unannounced into Buddy’s offices, extended a handshake and said, “My name is Bob Redford and I want to do ‘The Natural’.”

J: You were also an executive producer on “The Natural,” and you were on the set. Were you there mostly as writer or producer?

R: Redford and Levinson wanted me there, as the writer, at all times and said, “We’re going to go through this together.” It was so startling a statement because, like most writers, I thought of myself as expendable at a given point in time, regardless of the executive producer title. I never saw myself on the set, every day, during the shooting of the movie, but I was. Mark Johnson was the producer and as exec I was simply along for the ride.

J: How important do you think it is to outline before you write?

R: It’s absolutely critical. In navigational terms, the outline is true north. I learned that the hard way. You have a destination and a timetable. But first you must work out the story beats, the plot and characters. Once done, you’re ready to depart. It’s liberating and the journey is still filled with startling acts of discovery.

“In navigational terms, the outline is true north.”

J: You write very detailed outlines. How long are they?

R: I’ve gone from 22 -70 pages. I used to work with 3x5 cards. I like being able to scan the whole movie on the wall, I can literally watch it unfold in front of me.

J: What’s your daily routine?

R: I get up, have coffee, schmooze with my wife. Like a good worker, I head for the office which in my case is the coffee shop du jour where I meet friends and do more schmoozing. I love getting out. I love being around people.

J: You love talking to strangers-

R: I love talking to strangers – the happenstance of it all. Breaking down barriers of silence. And then I head home filled with guilt that I’m starting my day too late.

J: Sounds about right! When you’re feeling uninspired, how do you get back into the zone?

R: In the past, it was always get in the car and hit the road. That was my great love.

J: That’s funny I just the other day realized I get so many ideas while driving.

R: That’s what I was just going to say. I do my best meditation in the car. My car is my chapel. On the road, you’ve got the past in your rear-view mirror, you’re winging away from it, yet you’re right in the present. And the future is right in front of you. It’s a journey. And suddenly my whole body just becomes euphoric. In fact, I now have a theory that Angelenos have gotten so conditioned to the commutes because they’re discovering the enjoyment of solitude, of thinking things through-

“My car is my chapel. On the road, you’ve got the past in your rear-view mirror, you’re winging away from it, yet you’re right in the present.”

J: I just tweeted about this!

R: It’s a blessing and a curse. Because now we don’t have the will to change things around, we don’t have the will to get this city off its ass and have mass transportation.

J: What are some of your favorite movies, favorite scripts, and why do you love them?

R: I have so many favorites. I think you know what I’m going to say-

J: Well, maybe-

R: I’m gonna say “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

J: That’s the one I thought it was.

R: I could go deeper, but I love it and the man who made it, Frank Capra. I love the movie because it’s so highly charged with romance and magic. George Baily learns how much worse life would be like without him. That resonated with me in telling Roy’s story – a man blinded by his ambition – “to be the greatest there ever was” only to come full circle to realizing his importance as a man, a mentor and father. Screenplay – I’d have to say, “Casablanca.” It is so seamlessly written. It’s remarkable cast of characters. I love it for its repartee and its wit. And as far as I can recall, it has the most brilliantly conceived ending of all. And considering that it was written over six weeks and by a committee of screenwriters? How can you not mention “Citizen Kane”, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And the directors -- Wilder, Ford, Renoir, Curtiz, Wyler, Spielberg – the list goes on.

J: What advice would you give to a first-time writer?

R: If you’re interested in film, read a thousand scripts, see a thousand films and take Raymond Chandler’s advice and I’m paraphrasing, “Read, analyze it, imitate it, assimilate it, then make it your own.” Then forget about it. Get a job, dirty your hands, get to really know people, and then enjoy the instinctual creative process. And I put the emphasis on instinctual. It’s like golf; you have a hundred swing thoughts. The worst thing you can do is to play out of your head. You’ve got to take what you know and let it do the rest. Get to know the people with whom you hope to be working. Go to actor’s workshops. See your work through their eyes; They will teach you so much about your craft. Get involved in any aspect of the film business. It will make you into a better collaborator and collaboration is critical. Be and present yourself as a collaborator. Know your material because others may not know it as well but still have strong opinions and you’ll have to fight to protect yours.

“It’s like golf; you have a hundred swing thoughts. The worst thing you can do is to play out of your head.”

J: What’s the best advice you have ever gotten from a mentor and who was it?

R: There are two. Before I was back to writing, Don Devlin, a friend of mine, once told me over lunch at Musso & Frank, “Roger, just live and work each day like you had a million dollars in the bank.” The second was from a man who worked at a café that I went to everyday. I would go in there and write; I was having a hard time. The owner of the cafe, Bert, came over and said, “What’s taking you so long, what’s the problem? I’ve seen that same page for two weeks. You bring it in here, but you’re not working.” And I said, “Bert, I can’t do it, I can’t make it go forward.” And he said, “I tell you what. Write it wrong. You’ll get it right later, just write it down.” It hit me as the most bizarre solution because I thought, yeah, yeah I am worrying about getting it just right. But getting it wrong first, I can do that.

“Write it wrong.”