Thursday, February 11, 2016

Just because the making of a film was unique or difficult, it doesn't make it great

I'm trying to imagine a conversation of this kind taking place in 1975:

"Oh man, Spielberg has GOT to get Best Director for Jaws! It's just amazing what he accomplished!"

-"Really? The movie is that good?"

"You have no idea how hard it was to make this movie. Ended up costing them TWICE their original budget. The mechanical shark barely worked. There were days where they only got a few usuable shots, if any. I read it was supposed to be 55 days of shooting. They went like a hundred days over that. At one point, an entire boat sank and everyone almost drowned! Shooting on water, man.... it's a bitch."

-"...but how's the movie?"

Jaws is a fantastic movie. It's one of my favorite movies and it's also one of the most rewatchable films I've ever seen. If I run across it on cable, I will stop and watch the rest of it from that point forward. After 30-some viewings, Robert Shaw's tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is just as spell-binding as the first. Some of the dialogue still makes me laugh no matter how many times I hear it, and the performances and Spielberg's staging of them usually yields new appreciations with each viewing.

This is a movie that would be impressive on its own merits even if it had wrapped on schedule and on budget. (Yes, I'm aware that one bit of serendipity provided by the production troubles was that it forced Spielberg to be more "Hitchcockian" in how he featured the shark. Let's not go on that tangent.) If I was going to tell someone to watch Jaws, the production issues probably would not even factor into my sales pitch.

As of this writing, I have not seen THE REVENANT. From the time I saw the first trailer, it simply didn't look like a film that would appeal to me. From that point forward, anything I heard about the film was focused solely on how difficult the film was to make and how the director ran roughshod over his crew, subjecting them and his actors to extreme conditions.  This Yahoo News article is a good example of that press. It's an interview with star Leonardo DiCaprio and it's focused SOLELY on the behind-the-scenes factors. He's not asked one question about his character or the story. Instead, Leo tells us about the freezing cold and the constant risk of hypothermia.

I've held off on seeing the film because I wanted to wait for a point when watching it didn't feel like homework, when it wasn't an "eat your vegetables" experience. And yet, it remains a story I have no itch to see because all I know about the narrative is what was shown in the trailer. The fact I've heard nothing about narrative or the characters makes me wonder if the film has anything to offer me. (Two examples where such endorsement DID land a film on my radar were Brooklyn and The Stanford Prison Experiment, and to a lesser extant, The Gift.)

With buzz around the films that debuted at the latest Sundance Film Festival, I couldn't help but think back to three years ago when all the chatter out of Park City was about Escape From Tomorrow. The film became a must-see as word spread of its unique production - shot covertly at the Disney Parks, with the actors and film crew posing as tourists. The combination of the sheer balls involved to mount that production and the likely legal apocalypse that awaited the filmmakers made this a daring film that cinephiles felt they had to see.

And then they did.

EOT was no Jaws, I can tell you that. The performances were... inconsistent. I don't think the script ever quite finds its groove and there's an uncomfortable subplot about the family patriarch lusting after some 14 year-old tourists. I can't bring myself to call it a "bad" film, but man is it one you're not likely to feel the urge to revisit. The story it tells cannot prevail over the story of its making.

I recall the disappointment of another then-daring film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was one of the first films shot entirely on blue and green screen soundstages, with the sets and backgrounds added via CGI later. With a structure influenced by the old serials of the 40s, and production design descended from sci-fi of that era (and to my eye, the Fleischer Superman cartoons). It was a first-time director who got a shot at making a film in a revolutionary way.

Try watching it now, over a decade later. Stripped of the novelty it achieved by being the first of its kind, the CGI looks less impressive, the pacing drags and... well, there's no way around it... Jude Law just doesn't have the kind of presence needed for what should be an adventurer. I'll concede that 40 years shows a few seams in the mechanical shark, but the entire film is so well-built that you don't care. Sky Captain, by contrast, simply evaporates from your mind soon after you've seen it.

No matter how much new ground you break technologically, no matter how much an ordeal your production was, there will eventually come a time when your film will stand on nothing more than its story. 3D novelties become common place, visual effects developments go from eye-popping money shots to appearing in every third soda commercial, and all of these trappings eventually mean nothing.

Keep that in mind when you write. No matter how you or the director think you will blow mind by shooting a film entirely in one take, or by doing everything motion capture, in the final analysis, none of that shit matters beyond how it informs the story.

I'd aim this especially at anyone directing their own script or short film - don't fall in love with all your bells and whistles. Eventually no one's gonna give a shit HOW you did it and they're just going to want to be entertained. Do you want a participation trophy, or do you want to make a film that will touch people 40 years later?


  1. These were my exact thoughts on "Boyhood", it was an interesting experiment but in the end that's all it was. The script, the story, the characters, the acting, none of them are really that impressive or memorable when you really think about it. Stripped of the "It took 12 years to film it" hype "Boyhood" is just a lifeless movie about life.

    I'm also right there with you on "Sky Captain". For all its technical wizardry I've never been able to sit through the whole movie.

  2. I agree. So many films try to pull in viewers with gimmicks, but novelty is the least valuable characteristic of a film. Especially since successful novelty is invariably copied ad nauseum.

    The power of the emotions and the acting in Steve Jobs far exceeds drama behind the scenes. And that's all I'm interested in. I want a good story with interesting--and identifiable--characters. That film will stand the test of time regardless of box office or failed marketing.

  3. Understand where you're coming from, but you really ought to give "The Revenant" a shot. Yes, most of the talk has been about behind-the-scenes problems, but that's mostly because a) the filmmakers have focused on that in an effort to win Leo his first Oscar, and b) the movie is silent for large parts, making most of its impact come from visuals rather than character.

    That said, the core story is that of a man trying to get revenge for his family, which has strong emotional resonance, and the performances by Leo and Tom Hardy (who is turning out to be the best actor of his generation) are can't miss. I assure you, it's not winning all of these awards just because it was "hard to shoot", especially when this year it has such strong competitors in "The Big Short", "Spotlight", and "Mad Max" (which was also a tough shoot).