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, 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

Cinema Of The Infantile: Welcome To The New Millenium

HollywoodpeachesI’ve been hard on America lately, it’s true. But with people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and Lou Dobbs and Joe The Plumber and… Well, the list goes on. With these folks popping up every few minutes to force some other piece of dimensionless drivel down the throats of Americans, many of whom are waiting patiently with mouths open like hungry fledgelings, one has to wonder if this country is made up of nothing more than infants intent on not developing their god-given brains.

But maybe that’s not really the case. I mean, Obama won the election, not McCain/Palin. And though there are a lot of crazies out there spouting lies to an audience eager to carry on those deceptions to their friends and neighbors, there are also massive groups of individuals who speak out in protest, call these liars out in public, and demand more responsible, adult behavior. Come to think of it, maybe it’s really just the people yelling and screaming and spreading these lies who think their audience is far stupider than they actually are.

While there certainly are a lot of people out there who either don’t want to think or have been trained not to, there are perhaps far more who are eager to think. Some may even be doing it as we speak. Which brings us to the point of this little essay. Cinema has always been a reflection of our society. Despite previous political administrations who showed their disdain for the arts with outrageous funding cuts, film is nonetheless of social, communal, moral, and evolutionary importance.

So why has the film industry been in steady decline since the early eighties? Well, part of the reason is probably due to the odd circumstances that lead to a revitalization of film culture that coincided with both political and social upheavals in the sixties and seventies. For a while there, the “inmates” were running the asylum. And it was wonderful. A little out of control and, at times, misguided, but wonderful. But what should have been a springboard has now become a sad basis for comparison. No growth happens without risk and mistakes. None. And we’ve been growing less and less ever since.

Film critic A.O Scott in his recent article OPEN WIDE: SPOON-FED CINEMA in the New York Times commented on all the excuses used for the making and promoting of thoughtless films over thoughtful ones:

…those reliable axioms about the taste and expectations of the mass movie audience are not so much laws of nature as artifacts of corporate strategy. And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalizes risk, originality and intelligence.

I grew up dreaming of making films at the studios. And why not? As a kid, the studios were still making films. Sure, they also had strong commercial interests, that’s always been a huge piece of the puzzle, but it seemed for a while there, smart sold. People were open to and seeking adult fare. But now it seems the studios are being run by folks who altogether missed that era and, none too bright themselves, believe their audience is even dumber.

I’ve watched some of the best films of our current generation, films that would have garnered awards and inspired lines around the block years ago, fade into obscurity and be publicly proclaimed, not just as financial failures, but artistic failures as well. Ang Lee’s masterful film LUST, CAUTION was all but ignored by legions of American critics and fans alike. Even after the commercial and critical success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, this cinematic haven for smart, subtle, nuanced, adult filmmaking was pushed aside. Or Stanley Kubrick’s swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, a true cinematic undertaking tackling adult subject matter with more artistry than most of the films of its year put together, was battered senseless by film-ignorant critics and studio execs who declared it a failure  despite the fact that  it was Kubrick’s greatest financial success… So what happened? Have audiences just gotten dumber? Or does it just appear that way?

Well, in my experience working in this town called Hollywood, where people travel from far and wide to glimpse that magical sign on the hill, I’ve come to believe that many of the folks working in Hollywood at the studio level are among the most childish and spoiled I’ve ever had the displeasure of working beside. Not all, mind you, but certainly most. And they, like most children, think they know it all. They certainly think their audience is far dumber than they are. The studios are to film what Sarah Palin is to politics.

While directing my first feature THE PLAGUE, I had the unfortunate opportunity to work with a series of folks whose knowledge of film was pre-adolescent at best. They would throw around the occasional classic or foreign film title, usually something extremely obvious, like a movie version of a hit song, only in this case it was CASABLANCA or 8 1/2 or THE SEVENTH SEAL. Jorge Saralegui was one of these guys. Once an exec at Fox, this guy’s knowledge of film could be contained comfortably on the head of a pin. And yet he wielded the kind of power that would ultimately decide the fate of any film he oversaw. And this was a man who spoke few words of kindness about anyone he’d ever known and moved about with an open disdain for those around him. I’ve written previously about his nasty and endlessly negative comments about directors like John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, both of whom he’d worked with. And his list of credits is like a who’s who of artistic (and quite often commercial) failures. My film included. In working closely with this man, I got an insider’s view of how a film intended for adult audiences can be reduced to strained peaches on the end of a small spoon. And who is he trying to feed? Us. And there are those, like Saralegui, who will gladly eat from that spoon themselves. Just like there are those who will drink from the Sarah Palin well and proclaim “Yummy” afterwards.

But Saralegui is just one of thousands of men and women projecting their ignorance into the mouths of babes eager to consume whatever mindless drivel they are handed. Even if the original intent of the creative filmmakers behind those films were grander and more daring than the final products ultimately revealed. Just look at the glut of quality studio films out there now. Sure, it’s summer, the time of “escapist” cinema, but even before summer hit, the best films were already being coined failures while the most mindless of the batch were being lauded as successes. And if you repeat the mantra that any film that isn’t a total financial blockbuster opening weekend is a “failure” while the artistically devoid TRANSFORMERS is a success, many people will listen. Just like when we tell people that Obama isn’t really an American.

A.O. Scott again:

Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it has made nearly $400 million domestically.

…The studios, housed in large and beleaguered media conglomerates, have grown more cautious as the economy has faltered, releasing fewer movies and concentrating resources on dependable formulas. Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand.

…What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one! …Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.

So when people ask me why I’m still fighting four years later for the release of my cut of THE PLAGUE, it’s not because I think it’s god’s gift to cinema or the holy grail of intelligent movies, but because it was meant for an adult audience and, at every step of the way, was chipped away at by its producers and ultimately the studio that distributed it until it was indistinguishable from all the other pablum out there. It’s a film that never reached its audience because its audience was never given a chance to see it. And this is just a $3.5 million thriller, mind you. Not a big-budget studio flick. I know what the film is and I know what it isn’t. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit back and have any film of mine turned into drivel without fighting tooth and nail for its life. Part of it is that I abhor the thought of my name being listed as the creative entity behind something as mindless and offensive as the producers cut of that film. The other part is that if people don’t start demanding something better now, then we should just accept Sarah Palin and stop looking any further. Let’s just put on our bibs and ask for more, please.

The conventional wisdom within the industry is to accept what has happened and to move on. We’ve been doing that for almost 30 years and I’m yearning for film and filmmakers to take back the art form, to allow the audience to have both its escapist fun AND its intelligence, its creativity, its originality, and its ability to ask some hard questions, to challenge, to assume its audience is smart with a hunger to grow. If I can’t fight for that within my own world, with my own film, then I have no right to ask more from anyone else. Not even the studios.

Cinema Of The Infantile: Welcome To The New Millenium

Accountants, Lawyers & Fratboys: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

the_day_the_earth_stood_still_movie_poster_onesheet_2008It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not fond of the studio movie-making machine and haven’t been for a long, long time. Taken over decades ago by accountants, lawyers and frat boys, the Hollywood film industry is like one of those terrifying zombie flicks where the dead just keep on walking even though their bodies have long since deteriorated. And what is it that keeps them going? Us. The audience. So isn’t it time we had a wake and moved on? 

I recently had the displeasure of watching the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Why, you ask, did I even bother? Well, first there’s simple curiosity. But second, I had read a review claiming that if this film hadn’t been made in the shadow of the original, beloved classic, it would have stood on its own as a smarter-than-average science fiction tale. 

Not true.

The new THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the perfect example of the Hollywood machine at work. It is a beat for beat what-not-to-do guide to filmmaking and storytelling. And what makes this so apparent is the film’s first 15 minutes which seem, quite surprisingly, to hold real possibility. Watching it, I thought to myself, “Wow, maybe a good remake of this film IS actually possible.” And I still believe that’s true. However, not in Hollywoodland. Despite director Scott Derrickson’s moody opening passages, the film quickly descends into the most ridiculous and obvious studio notes clearly given by execs who, despite possible good intentions, don’t know anything about filmmaking and/or storytelling. Every commercial trap is on display here. Logic is tossed headlong out the window as Klaatu, who is under minute observation by every scientist and government official, is interrogated by one man with no other supervision! Where did everyone go? Kathy Bates as Secretary of State, the military, the scientists? Are they all gathered somewhere watching DANCING WITH THE STARS instead of hearing what this alien has to say about the fate of mankind and a possible impending attack on the planet Earth? Whatever the reason, this minor oversight allows Klaatu to escape, only to seek out the one place where an alien can find help. 


Yes, that’s right. Because McDonald’s is crucially important to the film’s plot and a known meeting place for aliens who want to discuss whether or not to save or destroy mankind. I mean, where would you meet? As soon as I saw those golden arches reflected in Jennifer Connelly’s car windshield, I knew that good storytelling was not the main concern of this motion picture. 

And then there’s Jaden Smith, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son. I hate to get on the case of child actors, but young Jaden is EVERYTHING that’s wrong with Hollywood kid actors today. Precocious and completely unbelievable as anything more than a manufactured idea of what a kid should be. Again, I don’t blame Jaden who clearly is committed to the role, but it’s a type of portrayal that makes me want to run screaming. There is zero believability here. Jaden’s Jacob Benson is to children what McDonald’s is to hamburgers.

As for the other performers, I’m a big fan of Jennifer Connelly and she is what allowed me to stick this film out to the end. Even Keanu Reeves is acceptable in the role. Sure, an actor of more depth would have brought more weight to the role, but we do get a glimpse early on of just how Mr. Reeves would have worked here if a script and vision had been present. John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt is simply an odd bit of casting and a complete waste as this character is gone from the film mere seconds after being introduced. 

As someone who has worked as a studio writer for a time and had the misfortune of watching my directorial debut taken away by a studio and re-cut into an incoherent mess, I can recognize the mark of studio interference a mile away. I don’t know what the original script looked like for this remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, but I’m not ready to blame screenwriter David Scarpa or director Scott Derrickson for the mess that is this film. I’ve worked with producers that have gone on and on about wanting to make a quality film, about wanting to push the envelope, take chances, appeal to a smarter audience… And never once in my personal experience have they been able to follow through. After dozens of rewrites and meetings, the scripts always came back to the same tired formulas that plagued the previously produced films of these vision-less individuals. And it’s not to say that making good films is not somewhere on their priority lists, but I’m afraid it’s either far enough down that when something has to go, the quality and integrity of the storytelling is one of the first to get the axe, or they simply have no idea what good storytelling is. It’s also that many modern day execs do not understand–nor do they want to–that they are not the creative individuals behind the film. Gone are the days when producers would be proud of the creative team they’d assembled; when they understood that there are those folks who can do something they can not. Just as a great filmmaker might not make a great producer, most producers do not make great storytellers. But most producers working in Hollywood don’t seem to be able to find pride in pulling together talented individuals to make the best film possible. Nowadays, they need to do it all. 

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll repeat it here as it is wholly appropriate. A producer friend of mine who was working on a sequel to a blockbuster action film at the same studio that produced THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL once claimed that I, by Hollywood standards, would be termed a “difficult director“. When I, somewhat shocked, asked why, the answer was revealed, “Because you have an opinion and you’re not afraid to voice it. You have a vision.” Yes, this was the answer I was given. Verbatim. This producer went on to explain that the film she was working on had a director who appeared to have no vision. “He does what we ask him to. If he has a vision, he doesn’t express it.” She then went on to explain that this lack of vision was why the first film they did together was a bad film. Her term, not mine. She then went on to explain that the sequel she was now working on would also be a bad film. But the first made money despite critical and public trashing. And, as fate would have it, the sequel was also trashed by audiences and critics alike. But I’m sure it made money and therefore justified its existence. But what would those films have been like had there been a creative vision behind them? What if the producers of those films had not only allowed the filmmakers to express themselves creatively and do what they do best, but had actually inspired them and created an environment in which that creativity could flourish; where that kind of vision would be encouraged? I’m sure the opening weekend would have been just as successful. Hell, that’s all marketing anyway. But at the end of the day they could have also been proud of the film itself and not just its box office performance. And I dare say that even that would, most likely, have been even stronger. But the creatives are not important in today’s Hollywood, despite what many producers will tell you.

When Sony Screen Gems took my film, THE PLAGUE, away from me in the editing room, we were told point blank by Sony Pictures Executive Director of Acquisitions, Scott Shooman, “We own this film now and see no reason for the writer and director to be involved.” At that time, no one at Sony Pictures or Sony Screen Gems, including Mr. Shooman, had ever met nor spoken with me. The film was re-cut from scratch into something so bad it didn’t even appeal to the audience Sony targeted it to. It failed. Both artistically and, if one is to believe Mr. Shooman who claims the film lost money, financially. Even veteran cinematographer Bill Butler who had shot such classics as JAWS and THE CONVERSATION among so many others, was not invited to color-time and complete his work. The film was put together, frame for frame, by producers. One of those producers, Jorge Saralegui–who had been an exec at Fox at one point in his career–spoke endlessly on and off set about his experiences working with certain world-renowned directors whom he didn’t appear to either admire, respect nor understand. Saralegui couldn’t refrain from commenting on how director John Woo, during the filming of BROKEN ARROW–which Saralegiu apparently oversaw the production of while an exec at Fox–was “shaking in his boots the whole time.” Saralegui then went on to claim that Woo had no idea how to direct an action scene! Yes, the very thing thing Woo was known for the world over long before he ever came to Fox to make the disaster that is BROKEN ARROW, was the very thing Saralegui was criticizing him for. As it stands, BROKEN ARROW is a film that does not seem to represent the filmmaker at all. Saralugui would tell this story over and over again (to hear more observations on this by Seattle filmmaker Janice Findley who spent some time with Saralegui, go HERE). Jorge Saralegui also complained endlessly to me about working with French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet on ALIEN: RESURRECTION. Saralegui went as far as to suggest that Jeunet didn’t have a clue where to put the camera! This about a director known for his extraordinary visual sense! In listening to Saralegui’s stories, I got the sense that he actually felt as if he’d single-handedly saved these films not only financially, but artistically. I knew for certain at that point that both I and my film were in deep trouble. I turned out to be correct. In the editing room, Saralegui, displaying what I can only call a seemingly uncontrollable viscousness and rage which had become a familiar sight to many of us on set, vomited up “This is no longer your film. It’s mine!” When I calmly pointed out that he had done exactly the same thing to John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet,  Saralegui’s response was, “That’s right! And now I’m doing it to you!” 

I suppose at least I’m in good company. 

But how, I must ask, in this environment, can a good film be made? One starts to believe if a good film does come out of Hollywood, it will be a result of an oversight on someone’s part. It is simply something that does not exist at the studio level. Producers no longer know how to produce. And writers are not allowed to write and directors not allowed to direct. But the films keep coming and they are miserable. 

It took a lot of effort on the part of many to make THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL as bad as it is. They took a great story and a timely concept, and stripped it of all integrity. It is truly an amazing feat. But not surprising. Just shamefully disappointing. But it is the rule in Hollywood these days, not the exception.

Accountants, Lawyers & Fratboys: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL