Tuesday, January 25, 2011

William Friedkin: Only questions, not answers.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.--Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

This past Saturday I had the great privilege of attending a screening of The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. as part of an American Cinematheque retrospective of William Friedkin’s films. I had seen both films before, but not on a big screen. As it happens always with true cinema, The French Connection was a revelation. Sometimes all you need to learn filmmaking is to see a film the way it should be seen. For instance, I had never noticed The French Connection’s astounding score and sound design and the way Friedkin used it as a story telling device. And even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I was literally on the edge of my seat during the famous car chase scene. We saw a brand new print which is a cinephile’s wet dream.

It was also fascinating to see the two films back to back. Each film represents the decade in which it was made, from style, to acting to location. (Can you say Wang Chung score?) Both films have famous car chase scenes but it was almost as it they were made by a different person. To Live and Die in L.A. is one of the few films where you can see Willem Dafoe “act,” which I blame on Friedkin’s direction.

In between screenings Friedkin showed up for a talk back session and I’ve posted it for you in its entirety below. This is really good stuff folks. If you’re a fan of these films and/or Friedkin and if you’re a screenwriter and/or filmmaker, you will be doing yourself a great disservice by not watching these clips.

One thing is becoming very clear to me. I don’t need a Blu-ray player and an expensive big screen television as long as I live in Los Angeles. Nothing can ever replace watching cinema in a large room with a bunch of strangers.

* * *

Part :1 "Don't look for your movies at the cinemateque."

Friedkin talks about Billy Wilder and how The French Connection got made on a measly $1.8 million budget.


Part 2: About Ricky Bravo, his role in the Cuban Revolution, shooting in New York City and how the score came about.

Part 3: "Doyle"

Released as a double feature, the studio had no idea what they had.  Friedkin still thinks of it as a nice little B picture. A surprise guest shows up.

Part 4: Friedkin's actors talk about the kind of atmosphere he created on the set. Friedkin tells us what the director's responsibility is and lessons learned from Harold Pinter.

Part 5: Passing counterfeit bills and why Friedkin told the Department of the Treasury to "go fuck themselves."

Part 6: "Filmmaking Rules don't mean a damn thing."

Friedkin orders the audience to ask only intelligent questions. (Thank you Jesus!)  He also talks about the car chase scene, which was not in he script, came about, what you have to do to learn how to direct and what he tells film students. Also, a funny anecdote about Alfred Hitchcock.

Part 7:  "We don't make these films for brain surgeons." 

A funny story about Lubitsch, Wilder and the preview process. He talks about the Confessions of St. Augustine and some shocking information about The Exorcist.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Homage, fromage...

When you're nobody, you steal. When you're QT, you pay homage.

To finish my thought...idolize QT if you must, but watch the originals that gave him so much "inspiration."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

There’s this guy…

I have written about my fascination with homeless people before, but I have recently realized that they are, in fact, my muses.  Not all of homeless people in general.  Just certain individuals that catch my attention and get my imagination going nonstop.

I’ve been running into this particular guy for almost four years. The first time happened during the time I was riding public transportation to help the environment. I was at a bus stop sitting on a bench waiting for my ride home when he approached. Despite a bad eye condition and dirty, tattered clothes, I was immediately struck by how young, good looking and stylish he was. He wore all black—pants, t-shirt and leather jacket—and his demeanor was confident and bit feisty. As if saying, “you’re on my bench lady.” Even though I was intimidated, I decided I wasn’t going to be one of those crazy ladies that are afraid of homeless men. So I anchored myself and assumed a confident pose. He smirked and periodically released a chuckle. I became self-conscious and then counteracted with a feisty attitude of my own. It wasn’t his bench. I was entitled to sit on it too. The bus came and I got on. This scenario was repeated a la Groundhog Day over the course of a few weeks.

On one particular occasion, I found him already stretched out on the bench, lounging without a care in the world. There was space, so I sat next to him. I removed my iPod earphones just in case he spoke to me. He smirked, chuckled and laughed. I shot him a taunting look. He looked at a small shopping bag I had with me and asked me if I had food in it. I didn’t. My thoughts seemed to last a lifetime. I thought about what was in the bag. My workplace provides free soda and I had taken a Diet Coke (which I don’t drink often) because I was craving it and I planned to drink it after my evening run. So I decided to tell him I had nothing. But then guilt took over and thought of offering it to him. Then I thought maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. It was a Diet Coke and it would provide him with no nourishment, just a bunch of horrible chemicals. I didn’t want to fuck him up even more. Still, I couldn’t lie to him; he’d have to decide for himself whether he wanted it or not.

I showed him the Diet Coke and he released that damn mocking chuckle. Then he shook his head and took it from me. He cracked it open, leaned back and drank it as if it was a beer. He laughed and shook his head over and over. I wanted to joke and say, “Beggars can’t be choosers you know,” but I chickened out. I got on the bus and made a mental note to carry some snacks with me just in case I ran into him again. I did for a while but I never got the chance to give him something more significant than a can of crap because I stopped taking the bus. (The effects of seeing An Inconvenient Truth wore off and I loathe the bitter Los Angeles bus drivers.)

Now that I drive to work I see him all the time. Mainly dragging his feet in front of the corner Starbuck’s carrying a venti-sized drink. Every time I see him my head fills up with story ideas and I can’t wait to park so that I can jot them down.

I want to buy him a Starbuck’s drink. I want to talk to him. I want to take his picture. I want to get him talking on camera. I want to find out who he was and who he is now. I want to know what happened to him. It’s tricky though. I’m not afraid of him; he doesn’t seem insane or dangerous. But I don’t want to cross that line towards exploitation and I don’t know how to approach the situation. I hope some day I’ll have the guts to approach him and get to know him a little bit before he disappears like the other one.

P.S. That’s not him above. That’s a photo of a Chinese homeless man that became a fashion icon. His story captured my imagination and became the inspiration for a vignette in one of my scripts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Youth and the Beast

And for you, here is "The Rampage" from Youth and the Beast and "The Geisha's Temptation" from Bad Boy.   You can get music from Branded to Kill on the left side of this blog.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I’ve taken the long way to the crossroads.

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and robot builder.  Everything I did academically was towards that goal. I fancied myself a scientist and I excelled academically in every subject.  I don’t recall exactly when my artistic tendencies started to creep out.  I think I first tried to express that need by drawing.  First, I drew Peanuts comics and as I got older I progressed to sketching from fashion magazines.  I’ve always written.  My favorite thing to do academically was to write essays analyzing literature.  I’ve always taken pictures.  My grandpa gave me my first camera and my dad built me a darkroom in the wine cellar when I was in middle school.  I practically lived there and I still crave the feel of fiber paper and smell of Dektol on my fingers.  My grandma had to drag me out to eat dinner and go to bed.  But you see, in my mind, these weren’t worthy pursuits.  Space travel was important; art and writing were just hobbies I loved and was good at.

It’s pretty tough to be at a top university and suddenly realize, one year in, that science is not your calling; that you dread going to physics class where all the much-harder-working Chinese students are getting Cs and that you can’t wait to go to art history and literature classes.  It’s hard to let go of previous dreams and replace them with new ones.  It makes you feel like a failure until you accept the truth.  This is where I am.  I’ve come full circle and, as Domenico screams in Nostalghia, I’ve come back to where I took the wrong turn.

I was living in Puerto Rico studying and making conceptual art when I had a dream.  I dreamed that I was directing a film.  It wasn’t a surreal dream at all; it was clear and concrete and I could touch it.  I had never been on a film set or location, but I saw the equipment, lighting and crew just as they are in real life.  I woke up and since then it has been an obsession.  I never wanted to make films in Hollywood. I didn’t even know what one had to do to break into that business.  Hell, the first screenwriting book I ever read was Alternative Scriptwriting, Writing Beyond the Rules (First Edition, by Jeff Rush and Ken Dancyger).  I wasn’t really sure what kind of films I wanted to make until I saw The Double Life of Veronique.  This was around the time Pulp Fiction came out, when everyone wanted to become the next Quentin Tarantino. I think a lot of filmmakers still do.  Kieslowski showed me what film could be and that I wanted to do THAT. I wanted to make The Decalogue.

My boyfriend cheated on me and, after a difficult time, instead of going to The Art Institute of Chicago to get an MFA as I had planned, I turned down a scholarship and decided to flee Puerto Rico and go back to San Diego to the comfort of family and friends.  I finally read Syd Field.  There was no screenwriting software back then, so I set the tabs manually on my dad’s Mac.  I continued to write ridiculous screenplays and three years later, thanks to the digital revolution, the possibility of making films became a reality.  I enrolled in film school and never looked back. I edited my idiosyncratic first films on Media 100; then on Final Cut Pro.  I became obsessed with shooting on film and a small beauty called the Aaton A-Minima.  I wrote, produced and directed my own films and shot many films for others too.  I never wanted to move to Los Angeles until five years ago when I couldn’t stomach one more day at my day job.  I gave notice, sold my belongings, and spent the summer in Italy.

I don’t why or how I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter for hire. Five years ago, that gradually became my new thing. I continued to write ridiculous screenplays, except that now they were what I thought would have an audience. I didn’t know shit. High concept? What the fuck is that? Action films, I thought. Maybe. It wasn’t until quite recently that I finally grasped what that meant. The fucking hustle. I simply thought that if I continued to improve one day I’d write a screenplay that would get me noticed. Only then, I’d market myself. Whatever that meant. I didn’t want to bother. I believed that I had talent and I just wanted to write. The rest would take care of itself.

I won some comedy contests and I got a taste of what a writing career in Hollywood would be like. I call it “Chucky’s Fiasco.” It was the beginning of the end.

Early last summer, I started to hang around a screenwriter’s board full of mostly pathetic people trying to write something commercial. I wish I had come across that board three years ago. I would have saved all the time I wasted on a delusional pursuit. Now, don’t get insulted. Let me explain. If that is what you want to do, great. Do it. But first, really pay attention to the realities of what you’re pursuing. Talent has little to do with it. You need a lot of luck. And you must do a lot of bullshit stuff that has nothing to do with creating. It’s just so sad that most of aspiring screenwriters are waiting, some proactively and some passively, for a studio, or anyone, to make their film. That is the worst thing you can do with your life. If it doesn’t happen for you, then you’ll have nothing in the end.

It’s so weird to finally have thoughts and feelings that feel real, genuine and that make sense. For five years I’ve been fooling myself. I thought what I wanted was legitimate and real. It wasn’t. Just like going to space wasn’t.

These past few weeks, going to museums and browsing through my journals and sketchbooks fucked me up but eventually brought me back to myself. I stopped making art because I got it in my head that I could and that I actually wanted to make a living as a screenwriter. I was wrong. It’s not because I don’t have the talent, I just don’t want to do the things you have to do to get noticed. I don’t want to send queries, I don’t want to write high concept scripts, I don’t want to pitch. I don’t want to waste my time doing that when I can be doing my work. Also, I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. I never have.

For a while I tried to fool myself into thinking I could pimp myself out and write crap I don’t respect for the money. I can’t because I can’t write a movie that I would not pay to see. When I see a Hollywood movie I never say “I want to do THAT!” When I go to a museum or watch a foreign or experimental film, I always do and I know I can and I should.

I cannot, and I will not, spend one more second thinking about writing for Hollywood or anyone else but me. I’m still going to write, but I’m going to write what I feel like writing without a care in the world. I make films. I don’t write shit waiting for someone to make it. I can greenlight a film whenever I well damn please. And I can help others make their films too.

So, my dear screenwriters, there is one less out there for you to compete against. I leave it to you to write the movies for the masses, the Academy Award winners, and the moneymakers. You can buy the house with the pool and I will continue to rent. And be happy.

I hope you know who you are and where you fit in, and if not, that you’ll discover it and eventually find your place in the world. I think I’m almost there. Maybe.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

So many movies, so much booze, so little time.

I just got an email from the Spirit Awards listing the confirmed screeners they’re sending out. Most of these movies I wanted to see but they were in theaters for such a short time that I missed them. (Including Life During Wartime!) Also, I’m not used to paying to watch movies. Now I get to see them for free and in the comfort of my own couch. Hopefully. If I get to them. I still haven’t watched last year’s screeners, including Precious. I still voted though. Eh. It's not like it's the Oscars. On second thought...nevermind.

This year’s batch seems much better.

Everything Strange and New
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Kids Are All Right
Lovely, Still
Winter's Bone

Also, Film Independent puts on theater screenings of all nominated movies, so there will be more to watch. And don’t forget the Directors Close-Up series starting February 2nd: five weeks of conversations about the craft, the collaboration, and the art of filmmaking. Sometimes they’re interesting and sometimes they’re a let down. It depends a lot on the moderator and the guests. Mary Sweeney was a snooze, Neil LaBute too much of a comedian. There's much room for improvement. We shall see.

02 February 2011

Music and Sound Design
Join director Matt Reeves and his Let Me In and Cloverfield sound team for a conversation about creating the right soundtrack for a film.

Speakers include:
Matt Reeves (Director, Let Me In, Cloverfield)
Will Files (Sound Designer/Sound Re-recording mixer, Let Me In, Cloverfield)
Doug Murray (Supervising Sound Designer/ Sound Re-recording mixer, Let Me In, Cloverfield)

09 February 2011
The Creative Team
The collaborative work of the creative team brings a director’s vision to life. Explore a project’s journey from the early stages of research, through the careful choices of production design, lighting, and camera work, and finally to the screen.

Speakers TBA

16 February 2011
Casting and Directing Actors
A director, casting director, and actors will discuss the casting process, their collaboration on set, and how to shape great performances.

Speakers TBA

23 February 2011
The Spirit of Independence: A Roundtable Discussion
In this annual tradition, we’ll bring together directors from some of this year’s Spirit Award-nominated films to discuss their craft, and the challenges of staying true to their vision.

Speakers TBA

02 March 2011
Writing and Directing
A group of writers, directors, and writer/directors talk about their challenges and triumphs.

Speakers include:
Nicole Holofcener (Writer/Director, Please Give, Lovely & Amazing)
Jay & Mark Duplass (Writers/Directors, Cyrus, Baghead)

My love/hate relationship with award season continues…

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Long story short.


The music. The glorious music by Stephen Trask. And I’ve decided to butcher it in front of you lovely internet people. Please don’t hate me. I was trying to raise my spirits after an awful evening.

Tear Me Down

Sugar Daddy

Unlike show tunes, the music works on two levels. Each song furthers the story by giving us additional insight into Hedwig's character and backstory. As an added bonus, each ditty stands on its own and very few of them require knowledge of Hedwig to enjoy their own status as great songs.  Wicked Little Town and Origin of Love (not my versions) could have been runaway pop hits, if given enough radio play. Wig in a Box, which I have not butchered here, is the most "Broadway" of the set, and I've been known to sing the refrain over and over again when I’m feeling down.

Wicked Little Town

It doesn’t matter how many times I hear Origin of Love, I’m still blown away by the poetic and touching lyrics.  The sequence in the film, which mixes Hedwig’s performance and animation, can stand on its own as a great music video.

The Origin of Love

I have to confess that I haven’t put any bras in the dryer since seeing Hedwig. And I’m still looking for this pink plaid beret. Years ago, the search was an obsession.

The bravura performance from John Cameron Mitchell as the rock singer who is just trying to forge an identity is at times caustic, at others very funny. Mitchell's Hedwig is the very definition of a person hiding their fear and confusion under a mask.  I can relate and maybe that’s why I love this movie so much.  There are other points where Hedwig is nothing but brutally frank—so searing and truthful in her emotion that we have no choice but to sympathize with her. Even though she has experienced things few people have, there’s some part of this paragon of sexual ambiguity that’s doggedly omnipresent.  Hedwig’s search for completeness in her life is one that we all experience, and Mitchell brings out that universality with astonishing clarity and powerful emotion.
The Angry Inch

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

And The Pain Is Thunder (Yeah, Yeah)


 Between 1983 and 1984, my sister and I absolutely hated each other. The bully borrowed my clothes without asking me first, she was popular in school and she got all the attention from my parents that I, the first-born straight “A” student-perfect child, didn’t get. All our “conversations” ended in name calling, mostly from her part, and crying, mostly from mine.

One day, as I was right in the middle of recreating the Flashdance “Maniac” dance routine, I looked out from my window and saw my sister and cousin heading towards the tennis court. Great. It was going to take them a while to smoke that joint. I ran downstairs and into her bedroom. I looked frantically through her closet, rescued a few of my outfits and headed for her record collection. I quickly thumbed through them and came across my Quadrophenia, In the City and Sandinista albums. My blood started to boil but I calmed down before blowing my top. I was on a mission. I continued thumbing through her records and finally! There it was nestled between the bitch’s Face Value and The Romantics. I took what I was looking for, along with all my albums and clothes, and darted out. On my way down the stairs I thought of something. I went back, quickly searched through the vinyl, found the Madonna and then hid it between her mattresses. Ha! Celebrate that wench!

I was probably the only teenager in the world that didn’t own that album. How could I? I thought I was too cool and so close to convincing my parents to buy me a Vespa. A cool chick on a cool scooter doesn’t listen to pop for the masses. I just couldn’t fathom it having a place among all The English Beat, Stooges and Velvet Underground. No way. It would be a travesty.

I was only interested in one song: Track No. 1, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” I adjusted my leg warmers, Spandex leotard and headband, then carefully lowered the needle. Ah, there it was. That opening synthesizer snare ushering the beginning of my brilliant, improvised routine. Suddenly, I was no longer me, but a version of Jennifer Beals, dancing euphorically across my room, hanging off my ballet bar, pirouetting, leaping into the air, falling into a trance and getting down to the chorus… "Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa… Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa "…Then, screeeeeeeech… followed by silence. Fuck. I had forgotten to lock the door.

We stared each other down as she put the album back in its sleeve. Her face was blank. I held back tears. This was so unfair. I had to do something. As she was walking out the door I did the only thing I could think of. I jumped her from behind and grabbed her by her black curls. She put her hand on mine and twisted around to face me as she reached for my Sun-In-bleached head. She dropped the album and, on the third try, she was able to grab of a big chunk of my orange mane. “Let go of me bitch!” “No, you let go of me first, wench!” Let go. Let go. Let gooooo!

My grandma must have heard us screaming because she showed up on the scene armed with a broom. (Note: Mexican grandmas settle disputes with wooden domestic artifacts.) She ordered us to let go of each other but we just pulled harder and harder going at each other like rabid dogs, the momentum pulling us across the hallway as we spun around and my grandma smacked us over and over with the broom, trying to separate us. She released me first (ha!), then I. We handed our grandma each other’s chunks of hair, she confiscated the album and sent us to our rooms until we were ready to apologize.

The next day I gave in and bought my own Thriller. Michael Jackson’s music taught me that being cool means nothing. The only thing that really matters is how the music makes you feel. My musical taste has broadened quite a bit since then. I hated AC/DC and now I go crazy when I hear one of their songs.  Neil Diamond was an old dude that my mom loved, now I choke up when I hear “Love on the rocks / Aint no surprise / Just Pour me a drink / And I'll tell you some lies…” Time changes a lot of things, doesn’t it?

 Oh and by the way, I never got a Vespa and since 1985 my sister and I, for the most part, have been the best of friends. She also remains hopelessly devoted to Michael.