Desires & Lessons: Articulating A Filmmaking Experience


plaguefilmstripburnBack in 2009, I was interviewed by illustrious writer and chef (yes, that’s correct, he’s also a masterful culinary expert) Herbert M. Brindl for Rogue Cinema. I’ve been interviewed a fair amount over the years in all kinds of publications — from print to the internet — regarding my somewhat harrowing and sadly-all-too-common experiences as the writer/director of my first feature film. Some of those interviews I’m quite proud of, others I can’t help feeling I could have articulated better. This particular interview, however, I always felt pretty darn good about.

I stumbled across a copy of it the other day and found myself enjoying re-reading it from this new vantage point almost four years later. My film had been taken away from me in 2006 and this interview came at a time, unlike many of the interviews to come before it, where I had a few years to process what I had experienced and what that experience had become, what it meant, and what I was starting to take away as the lessons inherent in such milestone events. Much of what I said then still holds true now, though there are, of course, even more lessons that have emerged and areas that felt a bit grey at the time that have manifested into a somewhat more coherent form today. Time and reflection, mixed with new experiences, will thankfully do that.

Here is that interview, unedited, as it unfolded:

Director, Writer Hal Masonberg Rogue Interview. First published June 01, 2009:

hm1HMB: Mr. Masonberg, tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was the reason you decided to go into filmmaking?

HM: I grew up in New Jersey. I left when I was 16 and never looked back. I’ve moved around a lot since then. As for filmmaking, I’ve always been passionate about film. From as early on as I can remember. Even before I knew what directing was, I knew I wanted to be the guy who was telling the story up on the screen. For a lot of people, I think film works as an escape from daily life. And it certainly is that for me at times, no doubt about it, but even when I was a kid, I loved going to films that forced me –no allowed me, to think. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 60’s and 70’s so the “mainstream” films at that time were pretty incredible! Especially compared to what we have now. We didn’t know at the time that we were in a golden age of cinema, but it turns out we were! That period in my life still infuses my approach to storytelling today. That and classic films, which I watched incessantly growing up and continue to do so today. I guess I’m just a good old-fashioned film geek.

HMB: What are the movies you grew up with?

HM: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was the film that captured me and changed my life forever. I saw it in its initial release and then again in its first reissue. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, talking about it… I was also a big Charlie Chaplin fan as a kid. They showed MODERN TIMES at a local movie theater for a number of weeks and I went several times each weekend. I was also an avid reader so I would buy the paperback of the latest film, and the “making-of” book if there was one. Regardless of whether or not I’d seen the movie yet, and I’d consume them all. I just loved everything about film.

HMB: I know you spent some time in Sweden. What was the reason behind your move there?

HM: Initially it was an invitation from friends. I looked into studying film there and found that I could. So I jumped on the opportunity. I was already a big fan of Bergman films, but I also knew there was a ton of other fantastic filmmakers in Scandinavia that I didn’t have access to. So I went there, learned Swedish and had a blast. And yeah, that experience still influences my own approach to filmmaking. I’d probably fit in much better there as a filmmaker than I do here in L.A.!

HMB: Any European filmmakers you admire and what do you see as the differences between US and European filmmakers/films for you?

HM: Well, this is a big question. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not a huge fan of American films produced at the studios. For the most part, they’re fairly empty, despite the big budgets and the technical expertise. I’ve worked in the Hollywood film industry now for over 18 years and my personal experience has been that it’s almost impossible to make a film at a studio that actually reflects the vision of the writers and directors. So many people working in Hollywood are there because they love business, not film. But they have little-to-no understanding of the business they’re in! If you ran a tailor shop, I’d expect you to know something about tailoring. If you owned a restaurant, I’d expect you to know something about food and appetites and ambience. It’s the same with the film business. Only at the studio level, so many of the people working there don’t have a love of cinema. Nor do they have a very deep understanding of the artistry behind it. There’s an attitude that’s rampant in Hollywood that there’s only one way to do things. And any variation from that is wrong. There’s also an assumption that the audience is not as savvy as the executives making the big decisions. And that’s a scary thing because my experience has been that a lot of film execs are not all that savvy!

In my personal experience–and the experiences of many of my friends and colleagues–there seems to be a lack of respect for filmmakers at the studio level. And by that I mean the writers and directors. On my film, THE PLAGUE, we were told by the VP of acquisitions at Sony that they owned the film now and saw no reason for the writers and director to be involved. Now you have to understand, no one at Sony had ever met nor spoken with either myself or my writing partner Teal Minton. The film was sold to them by Armada Pictures, who let our contracts run out, and then took what we had shot and re-cut it into something completely unrecognizable. And then Clive Barker (whose producers were largely responsible for re-cutting the film and keeping both Teal and I out of the editing room) had the gall to say in an interview that the film we made wasn’t the film we had written or pitched. Nothing could be further from the truth. But Clive was almost entirely absent from the development and production of this film. Even his own producers were fond of commenting on how clueless he was as to what was going on with THE PLAGUE. They were constantly telling us things behind his back to prepare us for the fact that Clive was out of the loop. God knows what they told him when they kicked us off the film. I read in an interview with Clive sometime later that he claimed I had gotten in my car and drove away from the editing room before the picture was locked. And that’s very likely what his own people told him. Meanwhile, they were telling us that Clive no longer wanted us on this film and that they were re-cutting it into what producer Jorge Saralegui called a “killer kid film.” Of course that was the exact term we all used to describe what the film was NOT. Jorge’s choice of words was no accident and was accompanied by “get the hell out of here you fucking piece of shit! This is MY film now, not yours!”

Now in the almost 3 years I worked with Jorge, this kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon. I glimpsed it early on in small ways, but once we got on set I felt like I had to do a lot of damage control with some crew members who ended up on the receiving end of what I saw as intense verbal abuse and public humiliation. But again, Hollywood seems to be a place where people can act like this and still continue to work. Jorge’s not unique here. For me, I find people work better if you treat them like the human beings that they are. I know I’ll bend over backwards to help someone who appreciates what I do and knows how to express it.

The good thing here, of course, is that I now know exactly the kind of producers I DON’T want to have on any of my other films. Between Jorge and the Armada producers, I have a pretty good idea of what the tell-tale signs are of the kind of people that simply have no place on the set of any film I’m directing. The process of making a film should be thrilling. Damn hard work, crazy long hours and extremely stressful at times, but thrilling nonetheless. The last thing I need is for someone to be vomiting up their dysfunction all over the very same crew I’m depending on to get this film in the can on time and under budget. Not to mention whether or not they have what it takes to see the film through post-production without sacrificing the integrity and artistry of the project itself.

Which brings me back to your question… (laughs). I haven’t worked abroad, but I have friends who do. And it seems to me that there is a slightly different attitude toward writers and directors there. The types of films that can be successful in Europe are often more daring than what we produce here. But that said, even our worst films do business there so it’s not like everyone’s an intellectual looking for “art” films. I recently attended a British/American filmmaking conference as my next project is set largely in England. I asked the panel of actors whether they felt there was a difference between the final integrity of the films they made here in the States versus the films they made in England. All of them agreed that the integrity and vision of the film and the filmmakers was more respected in England. BUT… they also said that there often wasn’t enough money to shoot what was needed and those films suffered as a result. Here in the States, we have more money which allows you to get the takes you need. Unless you were working on THE PLAGUE! (laughs again). So I think you have to find the right balance. There are pitfalls to both.

As for contemporary European directors I admire, Krystof Kieslowski was one of my favorite contemporary directors. I think THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and BLEU are two of the best films I’ve ever seen. And THE DECALOGUE. I wish he was still with us and making films. That was a great loss. I also love Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Though not European, I think he’s really pushing the edge of films that work on a primal level. They’re “felt” before they’re understood. I also admire Julio Medem. And Isabel Coixet. I think she’s just terrific. And I love that Pedro Almodovar refuses to heed the sirens call of Hollywood. And why should he? He has everything he needs to make the films he wants right there in Spain.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg, before we get to your petition and the problems that surround “The Plague”, tell us about your version of the film which you wrote and directed. What inspired you to write a story about kids and violence in society?

HM: My writing partner Teal and I missed seeing smart horror films. It was as simple as that. Our favorite horror films were all clearly reflections of fears that existed in society at the time they were made. And those social fears still managed to resonate no matter how many years later they were viewed. Somewhere in the eighties, horror in America became a genre geared toward teenagers and concentrated more on graphic violence and gore effects than on story, character or, in my opinion, anything truly horrifying or terrifying. I stopped going to horror films for what seemed like ages. So, Teal and I decided that we wanted to make a film that harkened back to those films we loved and were so effected by, and at the same time make the themes a reflection of our time and some of the fears we face today. Kids and violence in society and how we act and react out of fear seemed incredibly timely for us. And while writing and shopping the script, the massacre at Columbine happened and other school shootings, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… All the themes we were exploring were coming to a head right before our eyes. And I still think the Writers and Director’s Cut of THE PLAGUE is as timely today as ever. Maybe even more so. But the producers’ cut is devoid of those themes. It is, in essence, just another teenage horror flick. It’s exactly what we DIDN’T want to make!

HMB: What are three Horror movies that left you thinking, asking questions and looking inward?

HM: There are many, but the ones that come to mind are DON’T LOOK NOW, THE INNOCENTS, THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY’S BABY, Lon Chaney’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS… It doesn’t take much to look into these films and the periods in which they were made to see what social fears they were addressing. But the best thing is that they still scare the piss out of you today. When Jorge was informing me that he was cutting down the characters and turning THE PLAGUE into a killer-kid film, he used THE EXORCIST as his reasoning. He claimed that THE EXORCIST was about a girl possessed by a demon. He proclaimed that the title of the film we were making was THE PLAGUE, not THE TOM RUSSELL STORY –Tom Russell being the main character in the film played by James Van Der Beek. But I couldn’t disagree more. And this is where I get back to my earlier point about many producers working in the film business not understanding the very business they’re working in. THE EXORCIST is not about a girl possessed by a demon. It’s about two priests and a mother. We never spend a single solitary second alone with the little girl played by Linda Blair. Our entire experience of that girl is through the eyes of others. The first 40 minutes of that film is dedicated to Father Karras, Father Merrin and, most especially, Chris MacNeil, the girl’s mother played by Ellen Burstyn. It’s their story! This film is about a question of faith and a mother no longer recognizing her own daughter and feeling helpless. How many parents must suddenly find themselves thinking, “That’s not my child. I didn’t teach him or her how to talk like that, act like that.” This girl is cursing, acting out sexually, lashing out at her family… Hello? If it was just a film about a girl possessed by a demon, it wouldn’t have been any better than the dozen or so EXORCIST knockoffs that followed it! No, what happens to that little girl is frightening, but it hits home because we’re witnessing it through the eyes of a mother. Now THAT’S terrifying! Take out those characters and all you have are spinning heads and pea soup. Which is pretty much what I think of the producers’ cut of THE PLAGUE. Spinning heads and pea soup.

HMB: How much was the budget for “The Plague”?

HM: I was told three and a half million. Though I don’t know if all of it ended up on the screen. Some questions have been raised about that.

HMB: What was it like to work with Dee Wallace and some of the other actors?

HM: Dee was a champion. I’d work with Dee again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m counting on it. The producers seemed to have absolutely no appreciation for what she gave to this film and that is witnessed by the fact that most of her astonishing performance was left on the cutting room floor in the producers’ cut. Dee is not only a team player, she’s an incredible human being and an amazing actress. Most of the other actors were a joy to work with as well. John Connolly as the Sheriff. Here’s an actor who I think is just fantastic and very underused. I was honored to have him in THE PLAGUE. Bradley Sawatzky, a local Winnipeg hire who played Deputy Nathan Burgandy… An amazing actor and the sweetest human being you’ll ever meet. Brad Hunt who honored the film, myself, and the role of Sam from before we started shooting till the moment we wrapped… Josh Close, Brittany Scobie… There were so many incredible people on this film, both in front of and behind the camera. I was truly blessed in more ways than not. I only wish the film itself reflected their commitment and passion. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to me to get the proper cut released. No one who worked on this film got what they wanted at the end of the day except the people who only cared about putting a paycheck in their pockets. And I know a few people on this production who are still fighting to get all of that!

hm2HMB: What happened during post production that caused you to be thrown off of this project? Was Clive Barker responsible for that? Also, when did you sense that you were losing control of your film?

HM: Well,I addressed some of this above, but I’ll add a little more here. One of Clive Barker’s producers, Anthony DiBlasi, confided in me that if Scott Shooman, the VP of acquisitions at Sony, got what he wanted, then the film would never resemble what we set out to make. This was once we got back to L.A. to start post and Anthony and some of the other producers had their first meeting with Shooman. Anthony wasn’t happy. In fact, he seemed pretty scared and distraught. About a week later, I put in a call to Clive to let him know how the cutting was going. It was my understanding that Clive had final say over the cut since his name was gonna be above the title, although at that time we all thought it was going to be Clive Barker Presents THE PLAGUE, not CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. I think that one may have even taken Clive by surprise! Anyhow, I told Clive that I had cut the first 40 minutes together and was really happy. He wanted to see what I had done and I was eager to hear his thoughts. He asked if I thought I would need to do any reshoots and I told him I was hoping not to as I had been discovering some truly great workarounds to the footage we didn’t get (our shooting schedule had been reduced from a supposed 28 days to a mere 20 at the last minute). We had a great chat and we hung up and I returned to the editing room. Next thing I know, my manager calls telling me he just got off the phone with Jorge Saralegui who was screaming that I had “gone behind his back” by calling Clive. All I could think about was how often these guys kept saying that Clive didn’t know what was happening with THE PLAGUE; that it was a waste of time talking to him. What I didn’t see coming was that they would actually become frantic at the mere thought of me calling him. What were they worried I would say? Clive never managed to come to set while we were shooting THE PLAGUE and so I hadn’t talked to him for several months. So far as I was concerned, it was about time I checked in. But something else was going on here. Something beyond my understanding of the relationship between Clive and his producers. I called Jorge. He admitted that he might have overreacted, but he was already in full defensive mode and remained cold and distant.

Next thing I knew, Anthony called me to tell me Clive no longer wanted to see what I had been working on, but would instead wait till I was finished editing. So I asked Anthony to be in the editing room with me from that point on to represent Clive’s interests. It was important to me that they were happy with the film as well. Anthony was very supportive and loved the cut that we had put together. It was still rough, but Anthony had told me repeatedly that I shouldn’t try and complete the cut in the six weeks allotted  After the six weeks, then the producers get to step in and make any changes they want. But the plan was to continue working together. As it should be. When we finished the first rough cut, Anthony was thrilled. He really felt like the movie was coming together. I asked him if he thought Clive would like it and his response was “I don’t know what I’d do if he didn’t!”  Turns out Clive didn’t. And now I know exactly what Anthony would do in that situation. I was told Clive wanted me off the project. I tried to contact him, but my calls went unanswered. It was like walking head-first into the Twilight Zone. Friends disappeared into the shadows, everyone became cold and distant. Suddenly, all the collaboration, shared vision and hard work was tossed headlong out the window. Jorge claimed they were turning the film into a Killer Kid flick, which is what they claimed Sony wanted it to be, and my participation in the process came to a screeching halt. I knew there was more to the story than I was being told, but what that was I still couldn’t say. It’s my suspicion that there were people putting words in Clive’s mouth that may never have actually come from there. But I don’t know.

One of the major themes in THE PLAGUE was how we react out of fear and the damage it can cause both internally and externally. It seemed ironic and, perhaps, grotesquely fitting that fear appeared to be a major driving force behind-the-scenes as well.

HMB: This sounds like it’s more a Studio standard method than an exception, what happened to you with the “Plague”. After that, were you in contact with other directors that had the same experience as you, meaning no final cut and and being excluded from the editing process?

HM: Yeah, other directors poured out of the woodwork once I went public. You hear about this happening all the time, directors having films taken away from them. But I think it’s more rare when it’s a low-budget film. Though I could be wrong. Sadly, many of the directors I came in contact with chose to stay quiet about it. I think that’s the norm. Lord knows my lawyer and agent at the time both strongly advised that I just “walk away”. So I did. But not from the film. I walked away from them. They didn’t seem to get that it was the film itself that was most important to me. Not my career or how this film was gonna “help me.” It’s funny, you know, after I was removed I had a ton of people say to me repeatedly, “Yeah, but at least you got to make a film!” And I’d say, “No. I didn’t.” They didn’t seem to get that having my name on a film, any film, was not what was important to me. So far as I’m concerned, I’ll never be done making this film until it’s out there as it was meant to be seen. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t move forward and keep making other films, I’m already in the process of putting together the next one, but THE PLAGUE is also something I’ll keep working on until it’s finished and available to the public. And by that I don’t mean to suggest that the experience of making THE PLAGUE wasn’t successful, because personally I have gotten so much out of the experience. What happened on THE PLAGUE defines how I will approach any film I make from this day forward, my attitudes toward artistic expression and the things that are most important to me. Including listening more closely to and trusting my gut. But the film itself, as a film, isn’t finished. Not until people can see it as we made it.

HMB: How did you handle this disappointing experience emotionally, and how did you overcome it?:

HM: I had several friends hold me down and keep me from tossing myself out a window! Truthfully, it was the most painful experience of my adult life. Which I realize is really hard for some people to understand. To lose something I had invested so much into… To be betrayed by people I had put my trust in… Filmmakers talk about their films being like their babies. And it’s true. I know for some people it’s hard to imagine a film being that important. But I had fought on and off for eight years to get this film made. I had been dreaming and struggling to do this from as early on as I could remember. And this was a story that was important for me to tell. And to know my name was going to be on a film that in no way reflected who I was and, in fact, was adding to the deluge of horrible, mindless horror films flooding the shelves of every corner video store… It took a long time for me to even start to recover. But part of the recovery process was not allowing myself to be a victim. I gathered the dailies that I’d kept on DVD and started putting the film together as it was intended to be. It was a fantastic experience in every way. Liberating and creative, exciting… It reminded me of exactly why I wanted to make films in the first place. Something that’s easy to forget working in this town. I remember reading about Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film SYDNEY, which was taken away from him, re-cut and re-titled HARD EIGHT. I believe in the article I read that Anderson climbed into bed and didn’t get out for six months. Exaggeration or not, I understood the feeling. Same with Stephen Gaghan who claimed in an article that his experience with his first directorial feature ABANDON was more painful than the death of his father! A pretty extreme sentence. But again, I got it. Here was the Academy Award winning writer of TRAFFIC, and he was ready to pack his bags and leave Hollywood forever. Instead, he made SYRIANA which broke all of the “rules” he had been taught by the studios on how you write and make a good film. He threw formula right out the window and made a truly extraordinary film. One he might not have made if his experience on ABANDON had gone differently. You never know where that silver lining is until much later. And that’s my attitude with THE PLAGUE. I’m only now just starting to see all the great things that have come and are yet to come out of this extremely painful experience.

HMB: Is it true that you are still owed $70,000 in director’s fees by Sony?

HM: I deferred $70,000 of my salary. Sony now claims CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE lost upwards of a million dollars and therefore no money is owed to me. So I’m back at the old day job earning some survival money while I put the next film together. But it does strike me as odd that the folks at Sony put together a cut of THE PLAGUE, marketed it to Clive Barker fans, released it straight to video, and then lost money. I mean, my understanding was that Sony owned the film now and knew what to do with it. It seems to me someone tried to sell a film to Clive Barker fans that was never intended to be for Clive Barker fans, though they certainly tried to pass if off as such by re-cutting the living hell out of it, adding stock footage and recording tons of new dialogue. The irony here is that never seems to work and no one ever seems to learn. And the very people that the film was originally intended for would NEVER have rented or gone out to see a film with Clive Barker’s name above the title. That’s a very small, particular audience. And I’m not saying anything derogatory about that audience. It just wasn’t the target audience for THE PLAGUE. And I’m talking either cut! But it seems the studio had a marketing plan that was more important than whether or not the film we had made fit into that particular strategy. So some brilliant person made the same mistake made by a thousand people before him and tried to change the film to fit the mold. But you know, when someone keeps trying to wedge the square peg into the triangle hole… You either pump ’em full of medication or you simply take the peg away from them and give it to someone who knows where the square hole is.

HMB: The producers cut is called “CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE”, was Clive Barker actually involved in the film?

HM: I met Clive maybe 5 times. And three of those times were no more than 30 seconds apiece. The story wasn’t based on any of his work, he wasn’t involved with the writing or development, he never visited the set and I never saw him in post. The script existed for 5 years before anyone at Clive’s company even read it. Yet the film’s titled CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. Does anyone else find that a tad misleading? Clive gave me two pieces of advice: The first was that there should be a big scare every seven minutes. Every seven minutes! This was the day before I left to head up to Canada to shoot the film. First, one has to wonder if Clive had read the script cause there certainly weren’t scares written in every seven pages! What was he suggesting here? Second, is anyone else sick and tired of these ludicrous “rules” on how to make a film? It’s like taking one of those silly connect-the-dots children’s puzzles and using it as a sample of great sketch artistry.

The second piece of advice was that I should pick one or two scenes that were most important to me and put all my creative energy into those. The rest of the film I should shoot like a TV movie. Now I’m sure that was probably the best advice he could give on how to shoot a film like this in 20 days, but it sadly had nothing to do with how I want to make films and why I was making this one. It was more or less the antithesis of my approach to anything I care about. But I think if you watch the films Clive’s directed, you may realize that, if nothing else, he at least takes his own advice.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg don’t you think it was ironic that later on, Mr. Barker himself had to deal with miseries of his own because a distributor (Lionsgate) was screwing him on one of his movie (Midnight Meat Train). Not re-cutting it, but messing with its theatrical release?

HM: I did find that ironic, yes. Especially as he was asking fans to gather together and write Lionsgate in protest. I wrote a blog titled CLIVE BARKER’S KARMA? That said, I do hate to see anyone have their film messed with. Anyone. I know that film was important to Clive. But from what Jorge Saralegui had told me while we were shooting THE PLAGUE, he already felt like they had lost control of that film and had been pushed out by Lionsgate even back then. It was a bit of a sore subject already and they hadn’t even started shooting yet.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg what happened as you delivered your film to the editing room? Is it true that “henchman’s” forced you out of the building?

HM: Well, there were no henchman. Only Clive’s producers Jorge Saralegui, Anthony DiBlasi and Joe Daly. Anthony and Joe sat quietly with their heads down while Jorge, beet red and screaming at the top of his lungs, called me a fucking piece of shit, threw my editing notes on the floor and claimed THE PLAGUE was no longer my film but his. When I confronted him with the fact that he had done the same thing to John Woo on BROKEN ARROW and to Jean Pierre Jeunet on ALIEN 4, his response was, “That’s right, I did! And now I’m doing it to you!” What I was referring to was a set of stories that Jorge would tell ad nauseum on set claiming that John Woo didn’t know how to direct an action scene and was “shaking in his boots the whole time,”  and how Jean Pierre Jeunet didn’t have a clue where to put a camera, etc., etc. Jorge seemed to be not only putting these filmmakers down for the very talents they were most renowned for, but seemed to also be suggesting that he had saved those films by taking them away from those directors in post. There were other directors he’d worked with that he didn’t speak highly of, but these were the two I chose to reference in that moment. Specifically as he was so fond of repeating those stories with what seemed to me like rather misplaced pride.

HMB: Why did you choose Oscar nominee Bill Butler as you cinematographer?

HM: I knew Bill’s work on JAWS, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, FRAILTY, so many, many others, but most specifically THE CONVERSATION which is one of my all time favorite films. I knew Bill would understand that I was not looking to make a film with lots of wild camera moves and quick cutting. This film was to have a slow build and allow the actors to move within the frame. I knew he would understand my compositions and bring a world of wisdom and knowledge to the table. Bill’s the best. And his lighting technique is beautiful and subtle. I’m not fond of the harsh lighting of many of today’s films. There’s a “slick” look that is just not appealing to me. Unfortunately, Bill was not allowed to color-time his work on this film so the producers’ cut looks nothing like we had intended it to. The colors are all wrong, but worse, it’s too damn bright! We chose to shoot the film brighter than intended for maximum detail, it’s why we picked the film stock we did. So we exposed the film with the intention of then bringing it down several stops to create those rich, deep blacks. And this stock would allow for that. We were also promised a digital intermediate. That was included in the budget. It never happened. Bill was not invited to complete his work on this film. It’s really a major insult to the man and his work. Last time I spoke to Bill, he still wanted to know if we would ever get the chance to color-time the film correctly. I still fully expect to pick up that phone one day soon and let him know it’s time to finally make this film look the way it was shot to look! But for the moment, that decision lies in Sony’s hands.

HMB: Your next move in the “Plague” story reminds me of a biblical fight, “David vs. Goliath”. You started a petition and the Spreading the Plague website to get your own cut of the film released. When did you decide to fight back? And where you concerned that you could get “Blacklisted”?

HM: Ahhh, the age-old Hollywood blacklist… I think it was what my lawyer and agent feared. But I was never really concerned about that . My attitude was and still is that I have no interest in working with anyone who would “blacklist” me for fighting to get the proper cut of my film released. Like I said before, my career is not as important to me as the film I’m making. Which isn’t to say I don’t want the film to be successful. I do. And in fact I believe my cut of the film would have been very profitable were it released as intended and marketed properly. And it’s my intention to prove that, even with the bad taste the other cut has left in the mouths of most of the folks who have seen it, if the online reviews are any indication. The thing is, so many folks are running around trying to be successful in Hollywood, but they don’t seem to see that they’re running scared. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make a film. Especially these days. The studios no longer wield that threat. You want to make a film… Make a film! Hell, I used some of the top filmmaking software on my Macintosh in my living room to complete my cut of THE PLAGUE. Sure, if I want to make a $200 million film, I’m probably gonna need a studio behind me. But I don’t need $200 million. My personal definition of success seems to be very different from the definition of the people who were telling me my career would be over if I finished my cut of the film.

HMB: After you started your petition and your website spreadingtheplague.com, did you get any response from Sony or Clive Barker?

HM: Nothing. Clive’s people called my manager to ask “What the fuck?”, but that was all I ever heard about. It wasn’t until a bunch of fans started an email campaign to Sony to ask for a release of the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT that Scott Shooman, who had never met nor spoken with me before, called my manager to find out what was happening. When I heard he called, I picked up the phone in the hope of starting a dialogue. He called me back a few days later and seemed rather irate that people who had nothing to do with THE PLAGUE were receiving hundreds of emails. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted Sony to release the proper cut of the film. He told me straight up that would never happen as Sony had already lost money on the project. I reminded him that he was largely responsible for the cut that lost money, not me. So I said that if Sony wasn’t interested in releasing the proper cut, then I wanted the rights to distribute the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT myself or take it to another distribution company. I was fine with them continuing to make money on their cut. I just wanted mine out there as well. I even proposed a split-rights deal in which they wouldn’t have to put a single penny into the film, but would get a significant percentage of whatever profits it made. As I saw it, this was a chance for them to recoup some of that lost money AND satisfy the fans AND get me off their back. No go. “We don’t do that.” What Scott Shooman offered instead was that Sony would be willing to sell me the distribution rights to all things PLAGUE for $1 million. I searched my pants pockets, pulled out a couple of quarters and told him I didn’t have enough. So the campaign continues.

hm3HMB: What’s important for you when you attach yourself to a project and what have you learned about your experience with “The Plague”?

HM: John Cassavetes once said something to the effect that you should pick the five most important reasons why you want to make a film. Now those will be the first five things they’ll try and take away from you in Hollywood. I’ve learned that I should never give up anything that I don’t think I could live without. If the film itself is what is most important to me, then I don’t hand the film over to anyone who doesn’t care about it as much as I do.

HMB: One of your upcoming directing projects is the indie feature “CLEAN”. What can you tell us about it?

HM: When my old agent saw what happened to me on THE PLAGUE, she stated that maybe next time I should try and make something more commercial. I had to laugh. THE PLAGUE is probably the most commercial film I have in me! CLEAN is, for lack of a better term, a psychological thriller about identity. And I say for lack of a better term because nothing I write seems to fit snugly into any one genre. Even THE PLAGUE is more a drama with horror elements than what a horror film is thought of by today’s definition of the term. CLEAN is fairly challenging in that it follows four interconnected characters all spiraling downward as they frantically search for some meaning to the question, “Who the hell am I and can I trust my own memories?” The stories move back and forth in time and out of sequence. I think it will be very successful on the indie circuit. It leaves a lot up for interpretation. Which is something I love. I found when films don’t do what people expect them to or want them to, they tend to think the film is flawed. Some even get angry. I have a feeling CLEAN will elicit that response from some. But others will gravitate toward it and hopefully be blown away. The last two people who read it had two very different reactions: One claimed that it left him numb. The other said she starting weeping as soon as she was finished reading even though she wasn’t sure exactly why. And I love that! I love that two people sitting next to one another in a theater could potentially have two completely different reactions to the same film. I remember when I went to see Terence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD. The friend I was with felt like the film had missed all the emotional beats. It left him cold. Meanwhile, I was sitting in my seat crying like a little schoolgirl. I thought the film was almost entirely emotional. Like the most effective poetry. I was blown away.

HMB: What do you like and don’t like about the business?

HM: That I haven’t already mentioned?

HMB: Some advice for newcomers in the directing and writing world?

HM: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. Especially if they’re trying to tell you what you CAN’T do. And decide what’s most important to you and why you’re doing it. And know that there are good people working in the film industry. They’re just surrounded by some of the most dysfunctional people you’ll ever meet! And ask yourself honestly if the people you’re working with want the same things you do. It’s not a crime to want different things. It just might mean you shouldn’t be working together. And try and move beyond your ego. It’s not good for collaboration or for creativity.

HMB: What’s next for Hal Masonberg?

HM: Well, getting CLEAN made is top priority. Then another film I’ve been writing set in Cornwall, England. A really beautiful story. Also looking at putting together a web series so that I can start working with all the amazing actors and other talented people I know out here. There are only so many roles and jobs on a film. There’s too much unused talent in my little circle. I can’t just sit by and not create something designed specifically for them. And how great to work with people you love and admire. What could be more satisfying than that?

HMB: Please choose 5 film people out of the film business (dead or alive), you want to have at your dinner Table.

HM: Ugh… I hate these questions… And can’t resist them… Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Michael Powell, Carole Lombard, Krystof Kielowski. All gone now.

HMB: Any people that came along in your life you wish to give a special thanks to and credit in this interview?

HM: You, for one! This interview wouldn’t be taking place if you hadn’t been interested! And to every damn person who has been putting up with my endless PLAGUE campaign!

HMB: Thank you so much for the interview Mr. Masonberg, and all the best for 2009 for getting your cut of “The Plague” released on DVD!

HM: Thank you.

Desires & Lessons: Articulating A Filmmaking Experience

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence


Has anyone else noticed that around the time we elected Ronald Reagan president, American cinema began a steady decline? The same mentality that led us to George Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party, has led us to deliver films like RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to a public no longer interested in using their brains. In fact, “intelligent” and “educated” have become dirty words, perhaps even anti-American. So for a country that helped shepherd in cinema as an art and a craft –as we did Democracy and Capitalism as schools of thought– we have shamed ourselves by veering so far off course as to appear like adults who have grown into infancy.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the perfect example of how bad a film can be in this current age of Hollywood. And how brain-washed or starved film critics are that they would actually apply words like “smart,” “intelligent,” and “complex” to a film like APES.

“An emotionally complex story, evocative and engaging.” —Bruce Diones, The New Yorker 

“The cautionary tale feels surprisingly fresh and entertaining… Franco is charismatic as a dedicated scientist… With top-notch computer-generated images, this sci-fi action thriller revives the series and creates a palpable sense of tension.” —Claudia Puig, USA Today  

“The film, which Rupert Wyatt directed from an audacious screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, rises above its dramatic deficits, boosts the collective IQ of this summer’s movies and swings into flights of kinetic fantasy that blow the collective mind…” —Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal  

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” does it right. Smart, fun and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a model summer diversion that entertains without insulting your intelligence… “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is partly because it’s strong in the areas all films, not just summer blockbusters, should be. It’s effectively written by the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and well acted both by stars like James Franco and John Lithgow and supporting players like the protean Brian Cox… British director Rupert Wyatt’s previous feature was the excellent prison-break drama “The Escapist,” but he proved to be a shrewd choice to make a film about an entire species breaking free of eons of restraint, one that includes some of the most potent species versus species conflict since Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Birds.” …A director who knows how to bring drive and momentum to material he connects with, Wyatt works with editors Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt (both veterans of several James Cameron projects) to create a crackerjack sense of pace. And cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who shot the “Lord of the Rings” films, gives “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” an exciting wide-screen feeling while providing numerous bravura visual moments.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times 

“Precisely the kind of summer diversion that the studios have such a hard time making now.” —Manohla Dargis, New York Times 

Excuse me for a moment while I attempt to lift my jaw off the ground.

These comments are straight out of the Twilight Zone for me. They are truly from a different planet than the one I inhabit. Now granted, most of our film critics today are either fancy bloggers (far fancier than myself) or journalists hired as a paper’s film critic for reasons other than having any knowledge of film, its history or its craft. But there are a number of critics who have been around a while who have given this film glowing reviews. I say this with all seriousness: I will never read them again. I cannot trust them.

For the record, I take no issue with anyone who simply found the experience of watching APES enjoyable. It’s one thing to enjoy a film even though you know it’s highly flawed. It’s another to call it smart, well-written, complex. Those are two very, very different things. There are many films I recognize as not being particularly impressive works of cinema, some I even recognize as downright awful, but for one reason or many, I still find them enjoyable. Guilty-pleasures, as it were.

Thankfully, I am not completely alone in being appalled by this film’s brain-dead incompetence. There are some critics out there who recognized this tepid mess for what it was and were not afraid to say so in their reviews. They have my respect and I will be looking forward to more of their opinions and observations regarding film. Hopefully, with one or two of them, their ability to recognize weak, lazy screenwriting and uninspired directing and acting will be reflected in future reviews. Here are a handful of them who have, at least this time around, garnered my respect:

 “A creature feature of disappointing stupidity… Those early [APE] movies may look cheesy now, but the guys in the monkey suits at least gave Charlton Heston something solid to respond to. The stars of this incarnation, like the sick chimps of 28 Days Later, are just barreling balls of unspecified quadruped fury, swarming over the Golden Gate Bridge and tossing manhole covers like discuses. For all we know they could be protesting the lack of primate roles on network television.” –Jeannette Catsoulis, NPR  

“The production notes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes” calls it “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal – a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize, and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond.” Didn’t “Zookeeper” already do that? What about “Rocky”?… This is the kind of movie where the characters are always saying things like, “What are you saying?” Plot points are continually reiterated. Obviously director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t think we in the audience are as smart as Caesar.” —Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor  

“They probably should have called it “Beneath the Dignity of the Planet of the Apes… Freida Pinto gets to spend the movie doing nothing except standing next to Franco looking like Freida Pinto, which ought to be enough but somehow isn’t. Three years from Best Picture to Best Human Scenery? Depressing… A nasty guard (Tom Felton, a k a Draco Malfoy) has “first victim” written all over him. Yet it takes the movie a good 45 minutes to catch up to the audience. Why the guard — a twerp who looks like your average Kinko’s employee, not a sadist whose brutality is responsible for changing the fate of the Earth — gets so much screen time is a mystery. Especially when the movie’s got the ably villainous Brian Cox, who once played Hannibal Lecter, sitting around nearby… The monkeys don’t seem to want anything except to live in the redwood forest and maybe an apology for the 1976 version of “King Kong.” But as they settle down and establish themselves as the alpha species, I couldn’t quite summon much terror. Could they really be any worse than the real-life government of the state of California?” —Kyle Smith, New York Post

“Less wonderful [than the ape effects] are his fully human co-stars. James Franco, no matter how many degrees he amasses in real life, will never convince as a brilliant research scientist. The script, at its worst, stoops to having [Freida Pinto] pause before a cataclysmic battle, give Franco a kiss and whisper “Be careful.” If you have popcorn, you may want to throw it.” —Stephen Whitty, The Star Ledger 

“The filmmakers seem to have spent so much attention and, presumably, money on getting the primates right that they completely forgot about the people. Led by a mumble-mouthed James Franco in the role of Will Rodman, the cast of human actors is uniformly weak. John Lithgow is especially embarrassing as Will’s dodderingly senile father, but the list of offenders – and their acting offenses – is long. At one end of the dramatic spectrum is Freida Pinto, who’s almost invisible as Will’s veterinarian girlfriend. At the other end there’s David Oyelowo, who chews the scenery and spits it out as Will’s money-grubbing pharmaceutical-company boss. Brian Cox is somewhere in between. As the director of the animal shelter where the apes foment their revolution after Caesar is sent there for attacking a human, Cox exudes smarmily sinister incompetence but little else. As for Felton, his character’s malevolence is even more over the top than the actor’s work in the “Harry Potter” movies, where he played the maleficent Draco Malfoy. Here’s a movie mixing live action and CGI in which the humans are the least interesting thing about it. Not to mention the least plausible.” —Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

“[A] lineup of dull characters and a limp story that functions like a conveyor belt. Viewers get on, know where it’s heading, and that’s where it goes.” —Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

To suffer through the writing that accompanies RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is something only Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld could condone. Now I personally know all too well that the script as it appears on screen and the script as it may have been originally written or envisioned may not be one and the same. Oftentimes writers-for-hire are simply reflecting the desires of those who sign their checks. For good or ill. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a film with characters so paper-thin and generic. Poor James Franco, such a good actor when he cares about the material, but so awkward and bland when he doesn’t. Now I can’t speak for what was actually going through Franco’s mind while the cameras were rolling on this puppy, but let’s just say the end result was reminiscent of his performance as host of the Academy Awards. It seems when Franco knows the material’s bad, he gives it the least amount of effort possible; as if silently saying “Don’t believe for a second that I think this is good.” There’s an air of embarrassment to his performance. A dull “I wish I were anywhere but here” quality that no paycheck can erase. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I have a great respect for James Franco and his talent. I think he’s one of our more fascinating and talented young actors. But when you give him little-to-nothing to work with, he accurately reflects that back.

The only character in this film with anything to do is the ape Caesar. And he is played (via digital recreation) by the now quite famous Andy Serkis. And his performance has been singled out by both lovers and haters of the film. And rightfully so. Serkis commits. But that doesn’t make the script any better. But it does give us something to hold on to, however tenuous that may be. Perhaps this is what has captured audiences’s attention: that they could care for a digital character in a minefield of dull, dimwitted humans. But at the end of the day, this technological achievement still has backward momentum insofar as storytelling goes. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS director Gillo Pontecorvo’s now famous statement, “Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing,” seems to have been quite a prescient commentary on this very film; APES is the epitome of the decline Pontecorvo was witnessing in American cinema.

So how do films like this get made? Well, let’s look at some of the comments and advice that have been tossed my way by other filmmakers and producers: Clive Barker’s insistence that a horror film should have a scare planted every seven minutes (as if it were a recipe for the perfect blintz) is one that boggles my mind. Talk about formulas! I’m glad most of the great horror filmmakers didn’t have the opportunity to confer with Barker before moving into production. Then there was producer Chris Sievernich, who insisted a filmmaker should never do more than one take on any individual shot or performance. Unless of course the gate was dirty and we HAD to do another. Chris’s concern wasn’t with the quality of the filmmaking or the acting, but with the delivery of exposed celluloid. And as little of it as humanly possible, regardless of the caliber of its contents. Or how about the conversation I recently had with a producer (who shall remain nameless) whose latest big Hollywood remake was filled with so many gaps of inner logic as to drive an armada of luxury motor yachts through. When asked about the making of the film, he informed me that they knew the film had no inner logic, that it broke every rule it set up. But they didn’t care. He claimed that none of the test audiences noticed it so they figured it didn’t matter.

It. Didn’t. Matter.

What ever happened to pride in filmmaking? What ever happened to a desire to not only make money, but to make the best film possible? Is it that hard, once you’ve gathered all the elements together and have the money in place, to actually strive for quality beyond visual effects?

And speaking of visual effects, I have to say that at least half the time in APES, I found the digital chimps to be more distracting than engaging. No matter how far along we are, we still haven’t managed to give these things weight. There’s an insubstantial smoothness to the characters that make them feel shallow to me. Like wax museum figures come to life. There’s something to be said for trying too hard to make something look “real.” Cinema is not reality. I will take the artistry of a Stan Winston, Rob Bottin or John Chambers over the greatest digital artists working today. Not to diminish those talents, mind you. Digital has a place, it’s a wonderful tool and a very valid art, but it has not reached a point where I, personally, prefer it over actual three-dimensional objects or, by the same token, a beautiful matte painting. I go more on how it “feels” rather than how “realistic” it appears.

So director Rupert Wyatt’s direction of following a very digital baby chimp around as it swings and careens over lamps and through tree branches feels nothing more than a gimmick weighed down by an unwelcome, over-used familiarity. It lacks inspiration or originality. I would go so far as to say that I found the film’s visual style –Wyatt’s storytelling choices– to be, aside from its widescreen aspect ratio, more in sync with a made-for-televsion-movie than with something one expects to find showing at the local cinema. There was not a single image or movement in this film that carried an ounce of weight for me. Wyatt’s direction felt as unsubstantial as most of the digital characters bounding tirelessly across the screen. I could find no distinct vision there. Not even Andrew Lesnie’s lighting could save this film from the lifeless compositions and predictable camera-moves.

As for the other actors, I’ve always loved John Lithgow, and I would like to think he did as much as could be done with what he was given, but what he was given never attempted to move beyond the generic and obvious depictions of someone with Alzheimer’s. For me, the end result –within the context of this film– bordered on camp. Mr. Lithgow was, quite simply put, not in good hands. And while Freida Pinto may well be the single most beautiful woman ever created, she has little-to-nothing to do here. Or, as critic Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger observed: “Freida Pinto plays one of those movie girlfriends who seems to be there simply to prove that the hero isn’t gay.”

Brian Cox is completely wasted as a character with no arc, no purpose and no resolution. And Tom Felton as his son is such a one-note villain, such a first-draft concept of a character, that throwing the classic line “Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” into his mouth makes us even more aware of how little originality or care was taken in creating these characters, this world. The film would not have played any worse if the human actors had been nothing more than cardboard cutouts on sticks. They were certainly written as such.

For the record, I would much rather be writing a glowing piece on APES congratulating it on breaking free of the doldrums of contemporary Hollywood to offer us something of value, something inspired. But I cannot. At the end of the day, I would rather see a film that tries for greatness and fails, than see a film like APES which appears to strive for very little and –box office numbers notwithstanding– succeeds.

Luckily, there is always a silver lining. If nothing else, this APES reminds us just how great the original film was. And how, even at their worst, the four original sequels that followed never stooped this low. Not even the wretched BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES which at least shows effort in the face of an almost non-existent budget.

Beyond that, I think this film should be a fantastic motivator for American writers and filmmakers to do everything they can to return us to an age where we strive for more from our art, from our entertainment, as I hope we will one day strive for more from our politicians, our government. In a town like Hollywood, overrun with writers, to allow a script of this low-quality, something this lazy, this poorly written and executed to make its way into a multi-million dollar production, should shame us into action. I see it as a call to arms. A “RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE WRITERS,” as it were.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence

Favorite Quotes: David Gordon Green on Kevin Smith


Back in 2001, then first-time feature film director David Gordon Green made a comment about fellow filmmaker Kevin Smith:

“He kind of created a Special Olympics for film. They just kind of lowered the standard. I’m sure their parents are proud; it’s just nothing I care to buy a ticket for.”

I have to admit, the quote made me laugh. Now don’t misunderstand me, I love the fact that Kevin Smith opened the door for young filmmakers to pick up a camera and tell a story they felt represented them with virtually no money with which to do it. And clearly Smith has proven that his films have an audience. A pretty rabid one at that! I, myself, have never been a fan. The films don’t speak to me. And what’s more, I don’t think Smith has much of an understanding of the language of film. And he’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t need to study film or watch the old “masters” to know how to make a movie. Well, let’s just say I think perhaps Smith’s films may have benefited in some artistic way from a basic sensibility of filmmaking that goes beyond point and shoot. If anything, I’ve always felt Smith’s scripts were undermined by his own direction (or lack thereof).

But either way, his films say something to a group of people and I wouldn’t dare attempt to deny its value to those who get something out of it. But while I love that he has found a form of expression in cinema, he has also created a monster of sorts in that there is a whole slew of young filmmakers who have absolutely no skills in (or sensibility for) visual storytelling whatsoever. They appear, at times, like people who may have something to say, but don’t know how to use their tongues yet, haven’t bothered to learn sign language, and so thus attempt to communicate through a series of grunts and groans that only occasionally resemble language.

Then, of course, there are those artists who appear to have a built-in sense of cinema; not something learned in a classroom nor via the viewing of other films, but something innate. And though Kevin Smith himself has referenced some of these filmmakers –like Jim Jarmusch– as excuses why he need not bother to actually study the craft in which he makes his living, he, himself, has not yet displayed any such natural disposition toward visual storytelling. Perhaps this is why I found David Gordon Green’s comment to be rather amusing and not without merit. At least for me.

Perhaps Smith will grow into being a filmmaker with a basic grasp of the medium. I look forward to that happening. In the meantime, he shows a bit more talent as a writer than as a director (though I must confess only a vague, passing amusement with certain passages in his scripts. I cannot claim fandom). But I would never deny Smith his right to make films. Or his fans their right to adore them. And while David Gordon Green has not proven himself to be a “master” director himself (particularly with his current foray into stoner-comedies which, ironically, compete for attention with Kevin Smith’s films), you have to admit, the Special Olympics for Film? That’s funny…

Favorite Quotes: David Gordon Green on Kevin Smith

Director/Cinematographer Ronald Neame Dies


Legendary director, cinematographer, writer and producer Ronald Neame died today at the age of 99. My first conscious introduction to Neame was as a boy seeing his filmed musical adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, called SCROOGE, in the movie theaters. The film has a spotty reputation and came at the end of an era when the filmed musical was starting to die. But Albert Finney’s Scrooge is still one of my favorites and the film is a seasonal tradition in my home. I still love it dearly and it never fails to make me cry.

Then came THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, which I saw repeatedly during its first run. I was obsessed. Then THE ODESSA FILE, which I loved, followed by the fun but somewhat misguided METEOR and then the sorely underrated Walter Matthau film HOPSCOTCH.

Years later, I went back in Mr. Neame’s directing career to catch up on his earlier works which included the amazing Alec Guinness films THE HORSE’S MOUTH and TUNES OF GLORY. There was also Judy Garland’s final film I COULD GO ON SINGING, as well as the popular TV biopic THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

Around that same time, I discovered Neame’s work as the amazing cinematographer of many of David Lean’s earlier works: IN WHICH WE SERVE, THIS HAPPY BREED, and BLITHE SPIRIT, as well as the Powell/Pressburger ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING. And these films signaled the end of Neame’s career as a cinematographer after having shot a whopping 45 films between 1933 and 1945!

Add a producer credit to many of the above films as well as such classics as BRIEF ENCOUNTER, GREAT EXPECTATIONS and OLIVER TWIST. Neame was also credited as writer on THIS HAPPY BREED, BLITHE SPIRIT, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and GREAT EXPECTATIONS among others. Yes, this was a man whose contribution to film was irreplaceable. We thank you, Mr. Neame, for all the joy, creativity and adventures you sent our way. You are an inspiration.

Director/Cinematographer Ronald Neame Dies

“How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations


Why is it that so many people have such rigid definitions of what constitutes art or the artistic process? To me, it seems to defy the very definition. My experience working as a filmmaker in Hollywood has brought me face to face with folks who are striving to say something, and others who place little value on artistic self-expression. But what’s most difficult to navigate for me, is the artist who appears to have given in to the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to make a film.

I recently had a conversation with two friends about film editing. They are both extremely intelligent, extremely creative people. One of them has directed a feature that got taken away from him in post, the other is about to embark on his directorial debut. Both suggested that it was not in the best interest of the film or the story for the director to edit his/her own movie.

“You have no perspective,” was the reasoning.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe every director should edit his/her own movie. Quite the contrary. Editing is an art form all its own. It is also a skill that is developed. And there are some extraordinary director/editor relationships that are downright biblical (Scorcese/Schoonmaker, Coppola/Murch, Tarantino/Menke).  These artists have found a creative connection that inspires; they each feel that they are better together than separate. It has become an integral part of their creative process. And, of course, this extends to writer/director relationships (Powell/Pressburger, Ivory/Jhabvala, Lee/Schamus), director/cinematographer relationships (Bergman/Nykvist, Mann/Alton, Bertolucci/Storaro), and director/actor relationships (Scorsese/DeNiro, Allen/Keaton, von Sternberg/Dietrich). I doubt there are many people out there who would rather these relationships didn’t exist. But just because these teamings are successful, does that mean writers should not direct? Directors should not shoot? Actors should not direct? Or in the case of this discussion, directors should not edit?

There are no rules to the creative process. Every artist must approach their art in the way they believe leads to the end goal. And to do so, one needs to have an end goal in mind. That goal can be something concrete, or it can be something amorphous, more a feeling, a tone, something instinctual. I love the collaborative creative process. And I love the solitary creative process. As a writer, I remain solitary. Until I feel that I can go no further without the creative input of those I trust and admire. Some folks prefer having a writing partner. I’ve done both and, currently, I prefer the former. I have found it to be more creatively freeing and inspiring. For me.

There is not a one-size-fits-all roadmap to making art. To storytelling. To self-expression. To filmmaking.

Woody Allen claims that one should never try and write a script without knowing exactly where it’s going; that if one attempts to write that script otherwise, they will hit a wall around page 60 and have no idea where to go from there. I am a life-long admirer of Allen’s work. I think he is a brilliant, insightful writer/director. However, his take on writing is true for him. And, I am certain, for many, many others. It is not, however, the approach I have found works best for me in achieving what I want from a script. I prefer to work stream-of-consciousness. I have learned to trust my subconscious to create things in the moment that reveal themselves to me later. It is that very same experience I want to take with me onto the set AND into the editing room. As the writer/director/editor of a film, I am fully engaged in the writing process which, for me, not only continues through editing, but finally arrives at editing. It does not cease simply because I have moved beyond the script. I am telling a story. Hopefully, with a unique voice. The writing of that story, in film terms, is not complete until the picture is locked. So until that happens, my subconscious is allowed to run free.

After writing and directing my first feature, I lost that film in post-production to the powers-that-be and the film was re-edited from scratch without my participation. The result was a story and film that showed virtually nothing of who I was as an artist, filmmaker, director, writer or human being. During our editing conversation the other night, my friend suggested that there are only so many ways an editor can change what you’ve shot.

There are very few things in this world I disagree with more.

There are infinite possibilities for how a film can be put together based on the footage shot. Tone, style, pacing, meaning, even the very story itself, can all be different from what was initially intended. All via the editing process. Performances can be dramatically altered. Even main characters can be turned into secondary characters. Unless, of course, one is editing an Alfred Hitchcock film. Hitch, to maintain creative control, would edit his films, essentially, in-camera so that there was only one way to put the images together. He found a way to be the editor on his own films without entering the editing room.

Barring that approach, anything is possible in the editing room. There are thousands of ways to edit together a single scene. Millions to edit together an entire film. One has to truly understand this in order to comprehend the enormous power and potential of film editing. It has been my experience that most people do not.

When I sat down to create my own cut of the film that the studio took away (something I was told I could not do, but did anyway), I learned something I never knew before: I loved editing more than any other phase in the filmmaking process. I experienced a level of intimacy with the story, performances and footage that turned this part of the journey into one of the single most satisfying creative undertakings of my entire life. I was connected to the film in a way that transcended where I had been. And believe me, after 8 years of fighting to get the film made and living through the all-encompassing experience of directing it, I was already pretty damned immersed in the world of my story. But this was far more intense and personal than the seven weeks I spent working with an editor before the film was taken away and re-cut by the studio.

It was thru editing that I was able to complete the story, in my own voice, and impart an experience on to others that matched, not only what I had envisioned, but what I had felt. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that I put the film together exactly as I had storyboarded it. Or even exactly as I had shot it. There is no point in the creative process when I want to close myself off to inspiration. Editing was more creative and instinctual a process for me than the actual writing itself. It was a crucial extension of the storytelling journey and the final piece of the puzzle I was looking for. And I am certainly not the first filmmaker to feel this way.

“I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.” –Stanley Kubrick

When asked which area of filmmaking he most looked forward to, filmmaker John Sayles replied:

“It’s editing, actually. So often when I write a movie I have no idea if I’m going to get to make it — or make it in the next decade. It’s taken us so long to get some of our movies made, and I’ve had to do other lower-budget things first, that you can feel like a real sap when you sit down and write. I like a lot about directing, but it’s really stressful because there is always disaster looming with each new shot. The sun may go away, or you might have an actor who starts a new film tomorrow and you still have five scenes to shoot with him. So many things are totally out of your control. It’s a bit like trying to write something very serious with a taxi meter next to you. You just see the money ticking off every second you’re thinking. When you get to the editing, you’re still making the film, you’re still working with the actors, their performances, the rhythm of the film. You’re still rewriting, but there’s not that pressure. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not. I know, at that point, I’m gonna make the movie. I know it’s not going to fall apart and the money isn’t going to disappear from the bank if we get it that far. It’s one of the reasons I continue to edit. It’s more fun.”

From what I was able to gather, my friends felt as if, in denying the editing of the film to be done through fresh eyes, I was not taking advantage of all of the opportunities offered in the filmmaking process, hence not putting the film first, but my ego instead. I suppose the same could be said of a writer who does not allow another director to take over and interpret the script through fresh eyes. Or a director who does not allow someone else to shoot and light the film. Or a director who does not allow someone else to star in the film.

I will repeat: there are no rules in art.

There is no question that a healthy, creative relationship with an editor can and will yield amazing results and unpredictable discoveries. But it is not the only valid approach to making a film. The filmmaker’s storytelling palette, if it extends to editing, may bring something of equal or greater value. It works both ways. To suggest that the filmmaking process is dependent on hiring someone else to edit is to limit the creative process of the individual. It is just as valid to edit the film oneself as it is to have an editor. But one must want to go on a solitary editing journey. And have the skills to do so. And they must have a strong vision and be open to discovery. And trust their instincts. And their subconscious. All approaches will yield something different. All are equally creative. But to limit that process to one way and not another is, well, in my opinion, a misguided lesson to impart to future filmmakers. Were everyone to believe that a director should never edit his/her films, then the filmmaking world would be missing some of the great works by the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh… All filmmakers who edit their own films. Some, like Soderbergh and Rodriguez, even shoot their own films. Are they not artists who serve their stories?

Yes, film is almost always a collaborative effort. But what portions are collaborative are up to the artist, assuming one has control. Does the writer have to have a writing partner, or is it equally valid to write the script oneself? By dictating an artist’s palette, we risk destroying the very creative process itself.

From Sean Smith’s dismal, misguided Newsweek article “Career Intervention.”

“When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Yes, there are producers who feel directors should never have creative control. Does that make it so? This is undoubtedly true for that particular producer’s approach to making a film, but if it were to be accepted as the way to make a film…

In an excerpt from that same article, one indie exec comments on the negative repercussions of filmmakers (like Stanley Kubrick) who choose to live and work outside of Hollywood:

“The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be.”

As if there were only one true way to be an artist. As if Hollywood were the center of the universe. In a town where people are told how things are done and what can and can’t be done, there are many who fall into the trap of believing what they’re told without actually finding out for themselves. “No one gets final cut.” If you’re a filmmaker in Hollywood, you’re going to hear that line uttered more than any other. It is not true. But I’ve heard it repeated by filmmakers themselves, regurgitating what they have been lead to believe. Yet, there are directors who get final cut. Yes, even some first-time directors. So what happens when the facts outweigh the statement, but the statement is perpetuated? What is the psychology behind this? If having final cut is not important to someone, then it is a non-issue. However, if maintaining creative control is important to you, then it can be done. It is every day.

If, as a filmmaker, you look forward to working with an editor, if that excites you, inspires you, then that is what you should do. But to dictate that approach to all other filmmakers is creatively restrictive. Every filmmaker has a different reason for making their film. Every filmmaker envisions a different outcome, enjoys a different process. We all find what works best for us as individual artists. As individual creators. As individual storytellers. Even in a town where the word “individual” is dirty and creative alienation is the soup of the day.

For more thoughts on film editing, check out my post: “The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego.”

“How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations

Del Toro Walks Away From THE HOBBIT


It looks like Warner Brothers’ LORD OF THE RINGS prequels, based on Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT as well as other Middle-Earth works, has hit a bit of a snag. Guillermo Del Toro has left the project as director, though he will remain attached as writer for a few more months before moving on. It seems scheduling conflicts and a longer-than-anticipated production commitment has forced Del Toro to bow out. However, there are reports and hints that Warner Brothers may have been at fault here, despite claims that all of this was “beyond anyone’s control.” According to Bill Hunt over at the Digital Bits:

“…Don’t kid yourself – this is Warner’s fault. Insider word is they’ve been a massive pain in the backside to work with on this project, foot-dragging, hand-wringing over the budget and demanding to see multiple script drafts before officially green-lighting the projects. What a damn shame! Warner was handed (when they absorbed New Line) what could and should have been a surefire hit, based on a property that’s a proven film success and that almost everyone loves. And they’re blowing it, big time. Warner gets an epic fail on this.”

However, both Del Toro and Peter Jackson have made official statements that appear quite warm and conciliatory. Del Toro:

“In light of ongoing delays in the setting of a start date for filming “The Hobbit,” I am faced with the hardest decision of my life. After nearly two years of living, breathing and designing a world as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I must, with great regret, take leave from helming these wonderful pictures. I remain grateful to Peter, Fran and Philippa Boyens, New Line and Warner Brothers and to all my crew in New Zealand. I’ve been privileged to work in one of the greatest countries on earth with some of the best people ever in our craft and my life will be forever changed. The blessings have been plenty, but the mounting pressures of conflicting schedules have overwhelmed the time slot originally allocated for the project. Both as a co-writer and as a director, I wlsh the production nothing but the very best of luck and I will be first in line to see the finished product. I remain an ally to it and its makers, present and future, and fully support a smooth transition to a new director”.

Peter Jackson:

“We feel very sad to see Guillermo leave the Hobbit, but he has kept us fully in the loop and we understand how the protracted development time on these two films, due to reasons beyond anyone’s control – has compromised his commitment to other long term projects. The bottom line is that Guillermo just didn’t feel he could commit six years to living in New Zealand, exclusively making these films, when his original commitment was for three years. Guillermo is one of the most remarkable creative spirits I’ve ever encountered and it has been a complete joy working with him. Guillermo’s strong vision is engrained into the scripts and designs of these two films, which are extremely fortunate to be blessed with his creative DNA”.

“Guillermo is co-writing the Hobbit screenplays with Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and myself, and happily our writing partnership will continue for several more months, until the scripts are fine tuned and polished. New Line and Warner Bros will sit down with us this week, to ensure a smooth and uneventful transition, as we secure a new director for the Hobbit. We do not anticipate any delay or disruption to ongoing pre-production work”.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. I’m not a huge fan of Del Toro as a director, though I do find him to be quite creative and imaginative and there are films of his I do like, though I find his fascination with violence a bit more intense than I believe his stories warrant. That said, Jackson also came out of the extremely gruesome horror world and he turned out to be the perfect director for THE LORD OF THE RINGS films. With Jackson on as producer, Del Toro might have been the perfect choice after all (well, I think we all agree that Jackson is the perfect choice, but he seems to be committed to not directing these. Shame). We’ll just have to wait and see who will take the helm now. Keep your fingers crossed it’s not Michael Bay…

Del Toro Walks Away From THE HOBBIT

Actor/Director Mathieu Kassovitz Makes A Choice


Anyone who knows me knows my struggle to get my cut of THE PLAGUE released after watching the film get taken away and re-cut by producers into something almost unrecognizable. That’s why I want to applaud director Mathieu Kassovitz for speaking openly about the fate of his most recent film, BABYLON A.D.

According to Cinematical.comKassovitz admits that a troubled production and comprised final cut… are responsible for turning his adaptation of Maurice Georges Dantec’s futuristic novel into “pure violence and stupidity… like a bad episode of ’24’.”… He admits that, while he doesn’t hate the film, he insists that “I had something much better in my hands but I just wasn’t allowed to work” and then openly berates them for “just trying to get a PG-13 movie.”

In a town like Hollywood where speaking out against such actions is frowned upon and many are quietly threatened with being “blacklisted” (I should know), I want to acknowledge anyone with the bravery and passion to speak openly and honestly about their experiences. Kassovitz is a wonderful actor (AMELIE, BIRTHDAY GIRLMUNICH) and a director of rare talent (LA HAINE, ASSASSIN(S)LES RIVIERES POURPRES), but since making films in America he has not, it would seem, been allowed to live up to his potential (GOTHIKA, and now BABYLON A.D.). When this happens, we the audience–as well as the filmmaker–lose. 

What happened to Kassovitz is by no means a new practice in Hollywood, however it is one I hope is coming to an end as newer technologies allow filmmakers the opportunity to make their films in an environment more suited to the creative process. That day is coming, but it starts by setting examples for other artists to follow. We need to show that we have other choices aside from the ones we are offered by people who don’t honor or respect what we do. And no matter what anyone tells you, you DO have the choice. And this applies to all aspects of your life. Your art is no exception.

Actor/Director Mathieu Kassovitz Makes A Choice