Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker


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This is a daring and insightful speech given by Steven Soderbergh last week at SFIFF. It is one of the most perceptive and articulate commentaries on the state of cinema today and the difference between “cinema” and “movies.” For me, personally, it encapsulates so much of what I have been writing about for years and captures the very essence of why I started Off Leash Films and what I hope to achieve.

This speech comes at a perfect time for me as I have been engaged in conversation with a young filmmaker who recently commented on one of my older posts. The following is a response to several of his questions to me regarding editing choices I made on THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT and my approach and attitude toward making films and whether or not I consider the audience ahead of time:

Question: Hal, one question my friend, did you make the film for you or for the audience? That is what all filmmakers need to ask themselves. I agree with you, I need to see both films from beginning to end to judge and compare, also I’m sure the producers have taken away your characters and their emotions and made it all prokat – a recipe that works generally. I’m only saying I preferred the points where the film cut. The tightness of the shots and the fact that when it didn’t intercut it rounded up my emotional tension which is what I needed.

…I ‘m only young and learning and grown up with the fast cutting generation and think films like Amour are nerve wracking and should be respectful to the current audience and include editing – what is your view of films like Amour or Angelopoulos’s style? I love Fincher, hate Tarantino, love Attenborough, Altman, Nolan, Bergman… I love a good film, I don’t like self-indulgence and auteurs that do film only for themselves and just happen to have a good pr company behind them. I met Lars Von trier and he was horrible to us young students , full of pretentiousness and up his own. But I met Scorsese as well and he was amazing and helpful. It’s truth that I have learned from your site and take on board what you say about the intention. How do you know your intention? You shoot A and you edit B and on the way you might like C… is it always defined? Should it? If you were to do Plague again what would you do differently?

Answer: My answer is very simple: I don’t have an audience that is specific or makes any demands. I make films for myself WITH the knowledge that I am not so unique or unusual that I am going to alienate most or all of the human race. My audience are the people who will be moved and/or effected by my films and want to see more. Plain and simple. I am not a director for hire. If I were, then I would have to consider what the audience is that the producers want to reach if that is their goal. If I direct a pre-existing comic book or a James Bond film, then, yes, I must consider the audience. But if I’m making films that are an expression of who I am and tell the stories I have a need to tell and offer the experience that I want to put out there, then considering some non-existent audience makes no sense. The last thing I want to do is second-guess other people and decide what they might or might not like, what they might or might not “get.” Then I am not honoring anyone, least of all myself.

Hollywood has trained many filmmakers to think in terms of audience (males 16-25, for example). This has nothing to do with filmmaking for me. That is marketing and when marketing dictates what kind of films you make and how you are going to make them, the work itself becomes that much less personal and, as a result, that much less daring. Vittorio De Sica once said, “Art has to be severe. It cannot be commercial. It cannot be for the producer or even for the public. It has to be for oneself.” So I guess the question you need to ask is are you a director for hire or someone who has a vision they want/need to explore and share? Both are completely valid approaches. But they are not the same.

As for the directors you mentioned, AMOUR was one of my favorite films from last year. I love Haneke. I wouldn’t have changed a frame, not a beat. My other favorite from last year was the 3-hour cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET. The year before that TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA. So yes, I love Von Trier. And I don’t care whether he is a nice guy or not. That has no bearing on the effectiveness of his work for me. And you used the term “self-indulgence” negatively. Yet I think it’s a requirement for making any kind of art. Who are we supposed to indulge in making art if not ourselves? An audience? The audience finds the art, not the other way around. At least as I see it. Coppola is still one of my heroes and his approach to filmmaking now is absolutely thrilling to me. My favorite Coppola is still THE CONVERSATION. You like Bergman. He is one of my favorite filmmakers. He did NOT make films for an audience. An audience found his films. For him, it was about him and his actors telling stories. In a way that moved and excited them.

I think Theo Angelopolis’ LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST is one of the most beautiful and moving films I’ve ever seen. Yes, I get why some people find his films too slow, same with Tarkovsky films, but I adore them. They “speak” to me. They move me to tears, excite me in their artistry, in their ability to express and touch me. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, bores me now. He made 3 amazing films early on and the rest feel very empty to me. That does not mean they are empty, only empty to me. His recutting of ALIEN removed the very thing I found to be most effective and daring about his original cut. But several years ago he went back and “picked up the pace.” Shame. He didn’t even see what he had done and why it was considered so amazing by so many. He is a filmmaker whose instincts I no longer trust. I have met the man. I have had story meetings with him. He’s very nice. I enjoyed his company. But his ideas bore me, as do most of his films.

For me, THE PLAGUE needed to linger on the moments that resonated for me. That is the experience that I wanted to share. What happens in those moments and the feelings that come up for people experiencing that. However, it will not be the same experience for everyone. Another reason I do not consider the audience or allow them to dictate my creative decisions. I have no control over what individuals bring into the screening room with them. To try and second-guess that I see as a futile mission and one that has no appeal to me.

My desire, as well, with the editing of THE PLAGUE was to juxtapose certain images and themes, to suggest directly and subconsciously the connection between the kids and the adults. Every cut is made with purpose. Each has something to say, something that is nonexistent in the producers’ cut, which ONLY wanted to make a film with action and bloodshed. A killer-kid film. They wanted to answer as many questions as quickly as possible which, for me, reduces tension. That is something that I have no desire to be a part of. Nor do I find that to be effective in any meaningful way. I believe my cut is more frightening because of what it conjures up under the surface, those feelings that we don’t initially understand, but that rise to the surface nonetheless. I also believe that allows my cut to linger with its audience far longer than the other cut. But that is, as you know, also dependent on who is watching and what kind of experience they are open to. Again, something I have no control over nor do I have a desire to control.

You asked me what I would change if I could do THE PLAGUE again. Ironically, I would think less about audience reaction and more about what moved me personally. I would not have wasted precious energy on worrying about what others might think or how it fit into genre expectations. I would have made the film even more visceral, more abstract. I would have also trusted my instincts about the people I was working with and not talked myself out of taking the project elsewhere when I had the opportunity. And I would have never allowed myself to be talked (threatened) into miscasting the leads which, no matter how I cut the film, will always bog it down and dramatically lessen its impact. The film can never rise above the fact that they were miscast, that they were there to appease Sony’s marketing department despite the fact that they were not who or what we imagined in those roles, nor were they capable of pulling it off to the level that the film and story required in order to be what we intended and hoped the film would be.

There are so many quotes by so many artists that speak to me personally. They mirror my own feelings and articulate my own personal discoveries. They are also full of lessons and instigate thought. I want more from my films, both those I make and those I watch, than perhaps some others out there. That seems to be the case. But I also know that I am not “special.” There are so many people out there yearning and searching for the same artistic storytelling experiences that I am. Now maybe that’s not the majority of male 16-25 year olds (though it might be as so many films supposedly geared toward that audience still bomb), but I trust that what I want to say and how I want to say it has an audience. All I need do is be true to myself and follow my instincts and my passions. I feel no need to attract the largest audience possible. I am also not looking to make films for the studios or work with a budget of $200 million. So I have the luxury of not having to worry about such distracting things as what others might think and that someone might not like or respond positively to something I do. There are more than enough people who will have the opposite reaction, or simply their own complex reaction. I know what moves and effects me and that’s what drives me. I’ve written a fair amount about all this. You can find some of it at my production company site:

http://offleashfilms.com

I suggest reading the list of quotes there as I have personally found so many of them to be inspiring and deeply insightful.

And some other blog posts I’ve written that may or may not be of interest to you. Either way, they do articulate in more detail what I have been trying to say above. And probably more accurately. If you want to read them, they are here:

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/irving-thalberg-and-the-fearful-producers-wilderness/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/facing-the-unknown-the-organic-art-of-storytelling/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/eating-julie-taymor-when-artists-devour-their-own/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/eyes-wide-in-memory-of-stanley-kubrick/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/alas-more-wisdom-from-coppola/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/francis-ford-coppola-and-business-of-movies/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/hollywood-and-the-golden-arches-of-mediocrity/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/favorite-quotes-martha-graham-the-quickening-of-unique-expression/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/accusing-filmmakers-of-self-indulgence-other-storytelling-obstacles/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/great-american-films-still-get-made-theyre-just-hard-to-find-lonergans-3-hr-margaret/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/raymond-chandler-the-monkey-business-of-hollywood/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/desires-lessons-articulating-a-filmmaking-experience/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-or-the-descent-of-american-intelligence/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/sharing-coppola/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/why-fight-for-a-directors-cut-of-a-low-budget-horror-flick/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/articulating-bergman/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/how-dare-you-edit-your-own-film-and-other-creative-alienations/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/where-the-wild-things-are-a-love-song-to-boys/

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Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

Soderbergh Saves The Best For Last?


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I, for one, am not excited by the notion that director Steven Soderbergh has decided to stop making films. Of course, we all hope he changes his mind and either doesn’t stop, or just takes a short hiatus and returns sooner than later. But no matter what decision he ultimately makes, it’s invigorating and inspiring to know that he’s pushing the envelope right up to the end. Well, almost. I have yet to see his last two films, SIDE EFFECTS and BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. But if his two films before these are any indication, something tells me I’m gonna like them.

haywireHAYWIRE took me by surprise. With a leading actress few of us ever heard of but who is startlingly charismatic, beautiful and kicks some serious on-screen ass, and a smart script that moves around in time as it unravels its intriguing mystery thriller of intelligence agency betrayals, HAYWIRE plays like a film smack out of the 70’s. Though some critics essentially called it a poor man’s BOURNE IDENTITY, the film has far more in common with cinematic masterpieces like John Boorman’s POINT BLANK than it does with anything more contemporary. Poor man’s, my ass. There’s nothing poor man’s about HAYWIRE. It’s the work of a director at the top of his game and, while I enjoyed the first BOURNE movie, if there’s any relation to be found here, HAYWIRE is its wiser and far more accomplished (and extraordinarily distant) much older cousin (ten times removed).

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Gina Carano

Gina Carano, a former professional Muay Thai kickboxer and Mixed Martial Arts world champion, carries HAYWIRE from first frame to last. She is backed by an extraordinary cast that includes, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton. The action erupts out of quiet tension and is startlingly vivid and naturalistic as Soderbergh chooses to present these breathtaking and completely non-digitally-altered fight sequences sans music, giving the action an incredibly raw, unsettling and unexpectedly potent kick.

For me, HAYWIRE is simply a terrific film, a rare treat that shows us that American cinema is not dead, it’s just currently relegated to the shadows. At least on its home turf.

Soderberg followed HAYWIRE with the outstanding and vastly entertaining MAGIC MIKE, which also stars Channing Tatum, an actor I never bothered to pay attention to until Soderbergh forced me. I’m glad he did because Tatum shines in both films (despite my aversion to guys that remind me of frat boys). MAGIC MIKE is, in a way, Soderbergh’s BOOGIE NIGHTS only (and I’ll catch a world of shit for this), I think MAGIC MIKE is a far better, far more accomplished film. Where BOOGIE NIGHTS felt like a talented and not quite mature young filmmaker let off the leash in a room full of really amazing film toys and celebrity actors, MAGIC MIKE shows the subtlety, restraint and nuance of a mature and practiced artist at the top of his game. Yeah, I know many will disagree with me here, but like it or not, this is what the world looks like from where I stand.

magic-mike-posterSoderbergh’s humor and compassion, mixed with his love of actors and fantastically 70’s-influenced storytelling skills (as well as a much-needed-and-sorely-lacking-in-most-American-films desire for narrative risk-taking), makes MAGIC MIKE an incredibly welcome movie-watching experience for this oft disappointed filmgoer.

I hope if it comes to pass that Soderberg does, indeed, move on from his filmmaking career, that other young filmmakers will take his lead and find a way to express themselves without compromise and push the medium where it needs to go: Ahead, and not stagnating in the realm of bigger-is-better rehashes that all feel far too moribund and homogeneous.

Is that too much to ask?

Soderbergh Saves The Best For Last?

“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

Soderbergh’s GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE


200px-Girlfriend_experienceDespite much press about Sony pulling the plug at the last minute on Steven Soderbergh’s MONEYBALL, Mr. S still has much to be thankful for. And so do we. His latest offering had a pre-theatrical release on Amazon Video On Demand, then went limited theatrical on May 22 with a simultaneous release on Pay-Per View.

This low-budget indie outing was, like CHE, shot digitally on the RedOne camera with a budget of $1.3 million. Like Sodergergh’s earlier BUBBLE (which I loved), THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE stars a cast of non-actors, with the exception of real life porn star Sasha Grey.

The film is absolutely terrific and so are almost all of the performances. Particularly Grey. And somehow, even those perfs that were lacking in finesse and may have seemed a bit self-conscious, managed to work for me within the context of the story and the way in which the characters were presented.

And for those who have claimed that Soderbergh’s indie films are lacking in style (you know who you are), nothing could be further from the truth here. GIRLFRIEND is rich in style and texture, with striking compositions and a daring use of focus which incorporates limited movement and slowly draws the audience in with a formidably hypnotic effect.

More a tale of deals, negotiations, growth and decay than, say, a romantic comedy, GIRLFRIEND nonetheless manages to darkly tickle the funny bone while simultaneously being tragic, insightful and unrelenting. It is certainly one of the more profoundly reflective films for the age in which we find ourselves. The story takes place in New York City during the presidential election campaign and the subsequent economic downfall. And more perfect a setting could not have been used for a film and characters obsessed with money and control. What we buy and what we sell, whether it be merchandise, dreams, lust, romance, or our own souls, is at the center of GIRLFRIEND. Soderbergh brilliantly and stylishly holds a mirror up to our current America and some of the people that may inhabit it.

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Soderbergh’s GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE

Soderbergh Distresses About The Current State Of Film


Steven-Soderbergh-on-the--001In an interview with Henry Barnes of The Guardian UK, director Steven Soderbergh laments what currently feels like an industry that no longer has room for artists and visionaries like Soderbergh. And with increasing reports that studios are “taking even more control” and not allowing filmmakers or actors to call the shots anymore, Soderbergh may be right. Partially.

“I’m looking at the landscape and I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know. A few more years maybe. And then the stuff that I’m interested in is only going to be of interest to me… In terms of my career, I can see the end of it. I’ve had that sensation for a few years now. And so I’ve got a list of stuff that I want to do – that I hope I can do – and once that’s all finished I may just disappear.”

Luckily, Barnes adds:

It would all sound depressing if Soderbergh didn’t pepper his speech with fits of incredulous laughter.

And who wouldn’t feel this way if they’d been through what Soderbergh has been lately. His most recent film MONEYBALL was pulled just five days before production was set to begin (check out my post here). And his current film now showing in theaters and on pay-per-view THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE has a very limited audience despite some really positive reviews.

And then there was CHE, the Benicio del Toro starring biopic that found little distribution and support. The fact that the film was quite epic (shown in two parts) and all in Spanish didn’t help the commercial potential of the film, but it’s a sad state of commentary that a director like Soderbergh has to struggle to make films of depth and quality. Certainly there was little struggle in putting together the OCEANS 11 films. They appealed to the lowest common denominator and made heaps of cash. But the “one for you, one for me” system of filmmaking doesn’t seem to be working anymore. It’s now the “one for you and… hey, where’d everybody go?”

Now granted, CHE is not without its flaws and, according to Soderbergh, was a very difficult and not particularly satisfying experience.

“Everybody got scarred by [Che] a little bit. I don’t know how to describe it. It took a long time to shake off. It was just such an intense four or five months that it really … You know, for a year after we finished shooting I would still wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not shooting that film.’… It’s hard to watch it and not to wish we’d had more time. But I can’t tell you that if we’d had more time it would be better – it would just be different. There was an energy and intensity that came out of working that quickly.”

Hopefully, Soderbergh will land firmly on his feet again soon. And any of us out here trying to make good films and finding ourselves standing face to face with the current incarnation of the Hollywood Studios understands Soderbergh’s despair. But he is a rare talent and he does have an audience. And with his love and discovery of the digital realm and his ability to make a film on the fly, and the number of actors and other talented individuals who would relish the opportunity to work with Soderbergh on just about anything… Well, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of him for a while. And like Woody Allen before him, Soderbergh may just have to head to Europe to find a landscape a bit more suited to his needs and desires. Somewhere where he would be greeted with open arms, instead of having to defend his vision to people incapable of meeting him on solid ground.

Soderbergh Distresses About The Current State Of Film

Hollywood Studios: More Afraid Than Ever?


For what seems an eternity, I have mourned the loss of the days when Hollywood studios managed to mix films that were simply meant to have mass appeal, with films that focused on a more demanding audience. But those days are long gone and seem, for the moment, to be drifting farther and farther away. Even many of the studio’s more sophisticated arms like Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage have seen their doors close. Quite possibly forever.

Whether it’s the state of the economy or the fact that studios simply don’t tend to hire people who truly love film (more than the film business), the quality of American cinema has continued to nosedive.

02moneyball2_190Take Steven Soderbergh’s latest almost-film, MONEYBALL. Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction baseball story and set to star Brad Pitt, the plug was pulled by Sony Pictures just days before shooting was scheduled to begin. The reason given for such a rare and surprising last minute decision? According to the New York Times:

…accounts from more than a dozen people involved with the film, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships, described a process in which the heady rush toward production was halted by a studio suddenly confronted by plans for something artier and more complex than bargained for.

It seems a new version of the script was rewritten by Soderbergh himself. Now without having read the script myself, it’s hard to say if this decision was made because a film with a $57 million price tag simply needs to appeal to as many people as possible, or because the execs at the top simply don’t, themselves, appreciate more demanding films. I mean, let’s face it, Sony used to be the studio that made films like REMAINS OF THE DAY. What was the last film to come from that studio (or any other) that approached the quality of that one? Also from the Times:

The swift mothballing of “Moneyball” may also increase doubts that Hollywood can still deliver tricky but appealing pictures like “Michael Clayton,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

While films like REMAINS OF THE DAY haven’t had a place at the studios for quite some time, it’s truly sad to consider that films like the above-mentioned might also not be able to find a home at our once beloved studios.

And maybe that’s why I rarely see films produced and developed by a studio unless I happen to be in the mood for something, well, mindless. And they are good at that. And that has its place.

But I still miss the films that inspire and move me, the ones that allow me to think, that challenge me, that remind me that I am a human being, with complexities, questions, thoughts, ideas, curiosities, a sense of adventure, a desire for something poetic, profound, daring… something that can reach deep inside me and move me with the sheer energy of its cinematic storytelling…

But alas… I guess, for the time being, I will have to depend on the rest of the world to supply those. And to the handful of American independent filmmakers out there who are making films more for themselves, and less for that much-coveted directing slot at their favorite studio of choice… I am depending on you.

Addendum: it looks like MONEYBALL is back in the game, but Soderbergh is not. Sony has brought in SPORTS NIGHT creator Aaron Sorkin to do a polish on an earlier, more commercially-minded version of the script written by Steve Zaillian. Pitt is still attached.

Hollywood Studios: More Afraid Than Ever?

Spreading The Plague: The Perfect Hollywood Ending


 

Plague posterAct 1: My writing partner, Teal Minton, and I decide we want to make a horror film. In our opinion, most of the great horror films had been done years ago and almost all of them dealt with fears that existed in society; fears that still resonate today on a very primal level: the communist scare that feeds the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; a woman’s sacrificial role in society and household so terrifyingly represented in ROSEMARY’S BABY; a parent’s inability to help or understand what is happening to their adolescent child in THE EXORCIST. These films terrified us. They left us thinking, asking questions and looking inward.

So we write THE PLAGUE: a story about kids and violence in society, on fear, and how we react to it. We tell it through the guise of a horror film about how our main characters react when faced with a world where all children become catatonic, then wake up and strike out against them. Like all good films, these characters are the emotional backbone of the story.

We shop the script around for five years looking for people who don’t want to turn it into a teenage slasher pic. Meanwhile, the script’s themes become more and more relevant: the massacre at Columbine happens, 9/11, the war in Iraq… For a while, this scares people away from the script, “We love it, but we can’t make it here. It’s too timely, too sensitive. But let us know if you get it made cause we’d like to see it!” Even our agents suggest we shelve it and move onto something more commercial.

Eventually we end up at Seraphim Films, Clive Barker’s production company. They love the script and want to make it. There is only one stumbling block for us: THE PLAGUE is nothing like a Clive Barker film, nor is it meant to be. The producers assure us that the reason they want to make it is precisely because it isn’t. ” Clive Barker makes Clive Barker films,” we’re told. It’s explained to us that they want to create an avenue for smart, adult horror films of all shapes and sizes. They use the Clive Barker produced GODS AND MONSTERS as an example: more a character piece than a horror movie.

This is exactly what we’ve been looking for: people who understand the film and want to make it.  

Act 2:   Through the next three years of development, the script gets even better; we are all excited about the film we’re making. We join forces with Armada Pictures, a production company that puts together the money. It’s agreed by all that we will take the film, once completed, out to film festivals where it can find its audience and a domestic distributor. We know this film is more character-driven, more psychological than most of today’s mainstream horror films; this one’s not geared toward your typical horror fan and will therefore require a distributor who embraces this and can successfully get the film out to its intended audience. 

Hal & Bill Butler 1

With our cast in place and the script in great shape, we head up to Winnipeg, Canada to shoot THE PLAGUE. We’re barely off the plane, when we find out that Armada has pre-sold the film to Screen Gems for domestic distribution. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but the sale is done in such a mysterious way that we find ourselves asking the basic question, “Does Screen Gems want the same film we do?” But we’re never given a straight answer and there’s little time to argue; we’re a few weeks from shooting and knee-deep in pre-production. We hope for the best, tell ourselves it will turn out great, that Screen Gems will be the perfect home… And move forward.

It’s a grueling, wonderful, 20-day shoot and by the end, the producers are thrilled. “This is better than anyone expected!” I’m told repeatedly. We wrap and head back to L.A. for post.

I ask one of the Seraphim producers to be in the editing room with me; I want Clive’s interests represented. He does and his input is both helpful and insightful. We have six weeks to put the film together. During this process, I start to notice some of the other producers acting a bit cold, distant. One of the producers confides, “[Someone at the top] wants this to be a different film. And if they get what they want, it’s going to be everything we’ve been fighting against. It’s going to be horrible.”

I rush to my agent’s office with the news. “You shouldn’t be worrying about this kind of stuff now,” he says. “You should be enjoying editing. It’ll all work out.”

But it doesn’t. Tensions are high, everyone’s on edge, worried. We finish a rough cut. It still needs work, but you can see the film now, it’s coming together. I ask the Seraphim producer, “You think Clive will like it?” He smiles, “I can’t imagine what I’d do if he didn’t.”

Clive doesn’t. Or so I’m told. I’m not present at the screening, per the producers’ request. I’m told Clive feels it’s too slow, not gory enough.

“I don’t understand,” says one of the producers about Clive. “It’s as if he’d never read the script.”

But he had. I attempt to contact Clive, to get more details, but my attempts are met with resistance. We never connect.

People who I’d worked beside for three years suddenly become indignant. Others, who I had grown to consider friends, grow quiet and step into the shadows so as not to jeopardize their careers or position.

The day my contract ends, I walk into the editing room and one of the producers I’ve worked beside for three years says to me with frightening matter-of-fact casualness, “We’re cutting down the characters and turning this into a killer-kid film.” Everything stops.

“Why would we do that?” I ask. “We’ve worked so hard not to have it be that.”

He looks at me, condescending, “Because this is a horror film called THE PLAGUE, not THE TOM RUSSELL STORY” (Tom Russell is the film’s hero).

It’s explained to me that they want more blood, less character. My stomach turns. The thing I’d most feared, the thing I’d fought 8 years to prevent, was happening: THE PLAGUE was on its way to becoming another horror pic about plot and action, not characters and theme. I argue that this is not the time to change course; that the characters are the film’s emotional core; that if the audience doesn’t care, they won’t be scared. But it’s too late.

For the next few weeks I call the producers, but my calls go unreturned. I go to the editing room and am met with verbal abuse beyond anything I have experienced before. I even offer to help the producers with their cut of the film in the hope that I might salvage something: one moment, one sequence, one small tidbit of the film we’d made. I write up a series of editing notes and suggestions, only to see them tossed aside. The producers are very clear: “This is our film now and we see no reason for the writers and director to be involved.”

The door is shut. The betrayal I feel and the loss of the film is agonizing.

Hal & cameraOf course there are no “support groups” for filmmakers who have essentially “lost their babies.” So how does one cope with this kind of situation, with this particular brand of pain and loss? I ask myself, “What do you want? What is most important to you?” If it’s to keep working and making money, then I should probably do what my agent and lawyer vigorously recommend: “Let it go. Move on.”

But what if what’s most important to me is to tell stories, to grow as both an artist and a human being, to reach people on some deeper level… What if the thing that is most important to me about making this film is this film ?

Well, shit, that would be inconvenient.

“I’m going to finish my film.”

My reps look back stone-faced, not amused. When they realize I’m not joking, they spin into a tizzy, tell me it will be a career-killer. “I can’t imagine anyone who would want to see your cut!” Maybe so, but my gut tells me otherwise; to fight this hard, to invest so much of myself psychologically, creatively, physically and then have the film taken away and turned into the very thing I was making it in reaction to…  

I need to finish it. And it will have an audience. If only my friends and family, then so be it, but someone will see this film. Hell, want to see it! I fight the overwhelming desire to pack my bags and leave L.A., and instead take the digital dailies I have on DVD (the film was originally shot in Super 35 by the extraordinary Bill Butler), and transfer them into Final Cut Pro on my Mac laptop and start editing the film from scratch.

I spend the next six months in self-imposed exile. I teach myself effects, sound design, I create a temp score. And this time, unlike the 6 weeks I’d spent in the editing room previously, I really get to study the dailies. I know every frame, every actor’s nuance, every angle, every breath. I start to see not only the film we’d written, but more important, the film we’d shot . I experience a new “intimacy” with the movie; something I never want to work without again. Here’s more joy, more excitement, more passion. Here’s why I wanted to make films in the first place. Here’s the little boy with his super 8 camera!

The last thing I expected when I was kicked off this film was that I would discover something greater than if I had remained on board.

I finish the film and show it to the people closest to me. The response is overwhelming: people who would never have gone to see a horror film otherwise are asking to see it again and again. Lovers of classic horror films are asking if they can have copies to show their friends. My friend Carrie jokes, “The reason they took your film away is because you made a horror film for 40-year old men and women with masters degrees and the producers didn’t know what the hell to do with it!”

I show the film to some of the cast and crew and they are ecstatic. They agree that this is the film we set out to make. This is the film they want seen!

I send a copy of my cut to Screen Gems. I have no idea if they ever look at it.

The producers’ cut is released straight to DVD in September 2006 under the title CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. The film has been completely restructured, stock footage added, new dialogue recorded. Even Bill Butler hasn’t been invited to color-time his own work. My name is still attached as director, Teal and I as writers. It feels like a wound reopened. For us, the film in no way reflects our vision, work, or intent.

Dee WallaceAct 3: Legally, I can not show my cut at the local multiplex or release it on video, so I make a documentary called SPREADING THE PLAGUE in which cast and crew members, film authors/journalists, speak out about what I now call THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT. They openly discuss what they love about the film, why it is important to them to have it seen. I create a website by the same name: spreadingtheplague.com and put the doc up for all to see. I include articles, trailers, interviews. Thousands of people log on. Other sites start writing about what has happened. I start a petition and link it to the site in the hope that Screen Gems will agree there is an audience for this cut and release it as it was meant to be. People immediately start to sign.

And people are still signing.  

The story of THE PLAGUE -both onscreen and off- is one of fear and how we react to it. I believe it was fear that allowed the film we made to be turned into something it was never intended to be. Fear of being wrong, of losing one’s job, of doing something different. And Post-production can be the most frightening (as well as the most exciting) part of filmmaking. It is also the most important time to stick together. Communication is essential. To toss the writers and director aside as if they had nothing of value to contribute is, in my opinion, a grave mistake, but one that happens far too often in our industry. It is when the creative team and the business team work together, with mutual respect and understanding, that great films are made. But it is in moving past those fears and doing what is best for the film that allows this to happen.

So it is my continued hope that we can do just that: move beyond the egos, the doubts, and the fears that have plagued this film, to deliver the movie we made to the audience we made it for. Now wouldn’t that be the perfect Hollywood ending?

To find out more about THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT, to sign the petition, watch the documentary, listen and read interviews, go to:

http://www.spreadingtheplague.com

 

 

 

Spreading The Plague: The Perfect Hollywood Ending