THE HUMAN COMEDY: AN INTERVIEW WITH ROY ANDERSSON

June 9, 2015

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When I interviewed Roy Andersson last week I was struck by how mischievous this 72-year-old still was, his moon-shaped face cracking into an impish grin whenever he belittled things inimical to humanity (including but not limited to: the monarchy, billionaires, and smart phones) . The Swedish director was in NYC promoting A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final part of his trilogy “about being a human being” that is in theaters now from Magnolia Pictures. He has only made five features in his unusual career, with a seven year gap between the films in the trilogy: Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, The Living (2007), and now, A Pigeon. Each film in the series is made up of absurd, deadpan sketches about the quiet desperation of everyday lives, something of a minimalist, formalist Laurel & Hardy. Each section is shot in long takes on a  single set, his actors wearing white face paint as if in Kabuki, speaking in an earnest monotone.  A Pigeon, for example, opens with a man having a heart attack after struggling to open a bottle of wine . His films are so sad you have to laugh, or so funny you have to cry. I spoke with Mr. Andersson about comic books, his switch to digital, and a visit from the Wachowski brothers.

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RS: When you started SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, were you envisioning a trilogy at that time?

RA: I was not. It came up when I finished YOU THE LIVING, and I really wanted to make another movie, and it felt very unnatural to call it a trilogy, because the word trilogy is “respectful.” [Laughs] It awakens respect. They call it an epic number. You have number three, you have number seven. It’s a historic number. So, they are also quite similar to each other, thematically, so I saw them as in a family. I changed technique. The first time I used digital technique.

 

RS: Which one did you use digital on?

RA: This one [A Pigeon…]. Some commercials before. I tested it out. If it was possible to get it as good as with analog technique. And I found that, yeah, time had changed so, the technique, the quality, was so much better than, say, five years ago. I’m happy that I finally dared to go over to digital.

 

RS: Did you find that you were doing longer takes?

RA: Yeah, I did.

 

RS: Has it changed your style in any way?

RA: Not so much. But of course, this sequence with the king, Charles XII, it was not possible to do that analog. Because it’s eleven minutes long. You could make it with 16mm, you could, but not with 35mm. So… uh, I don’t know why it’s so long! [Laughs] But it was nice to have so many horses passing outside!

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RS: I did want to ask about that sequence, because there’s two sequences that stretch back into the past, there’s the scene from 1943, there’s the scene with King Charles, and both of those are some of the more nostalgic sequences. It’s like I had the feeling that you felt that these scenes of the past were more communal that the scenes in the present. Do you think we’ve lost something, some kind of communality?

RA: Yeah. The king is, there’s two scenes. When he leaves Sweden for battle, it’s a typical example of so-called anachronism. And when I left realism, which I did after fifty years with realism, finally dared to go over to what I call “abstracted style”, purified, condensed style, I dared to do it finally, because I had grown up with the typical worker class environment, and my worker’s realism was the only one, they didn’t like the middle class or the upper class style.

 

RS: A Swedish Love Story…

RA: Love Story was…very realistic. So I guess, yeah, realistic. Regarded as realistic. And finally to switch over to this and I dared to mix old time with our time, typical anachronistic, and because it’s good to criticize this stupid creation of a monarchy — I hate it! So I want to address the respect for this period, this idea with the king, who’s only responsible to God, and the world has been ruled by this stupidity for many, many years. And even the stupid Swedes, they’re really, “Oh my king and my queen!” This is stupid. It’s fake actually.

 

RS: So the monarchy still has a hold over the Swedish people?

RA: Yeah, I think over 50% want to keep the [monarchy]. You have that in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and England. I don’t know why these countries are so stupid.

 

RS: I wanted to ask you why you switched styles to a more “abstracted” style, what drove you to that. What appealed to you about that.

RA: Realism, it’s not that it’s not correct, but it’s… realism, is more limited than the abstracted style. For example the dream. I use dreams now. And I never dared that before. In dreams you are totally free. So when I switched over to this I felt so released. I dared to show dreams. And even this scene with the king, this anachronistic scene with the slave period, colonialism, that was possible with the help of the abstracted style. And I will continue with it also.

 

RS: I wanted to talk about the colonialism sequence. Is it that Sweden hasn’t fully reckoned with their colonialist legacy, or is it that something that isn’t spoken about a lot?

RA: Actually Sweden was not involved so much in that. Sweden had come here, to this continent, but not much. But the attitude is, even if we didn’t, we had the mental capacity for it. So Sweden has been very, very right wing for hundreds of years. It’s been ruined, Sweden has been ruined by the upper class, and the nobility. And on the top of that nobility there was a king. And I hate it.

 

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RS: I guess I want to ask you now about how you build scenes, because a lot of them seem to come from everyday life. The guy opening the bottle of wine, everybody saying” I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” Are these things you hear, or do you write them down and build scenes off of that? Or do they just come to you?

RA: I like that daily life. Cause it started already in my movie. It’s a love story, it’s also a lot of daily life. Lower middle class and worker class. And my most important source of inspiration with that was the Czech [New] Wave, with Milos Forman, and Jiri Menzel, they could make such humoristic scenes about daily life, so I’m still a big fan of Forman and the Czech [New] Wave in the 60s. And I keep, okay I change the style, but I keep the content of daily life, I care about the same thing.

 

RS: And when you build these sequences, do you storyboard them, or do you figure it out on the set? Because they’re so precise, they’re choreographed.

RA: I make a sketch to every scene. And then I color them with watercolor to make them more attractive, and I put them on the wall, so our team members can look, and it’s possible to check the order of them. I think this should be the first one, or no, one week later I put the other… So that’s how I work. I sketch for every scene. Only one. One sketch for every scene.

 

RS: The way each scene is put into a box they almost look like dioramas, or comic book panels. Just curious if you like comic books.

RA: Yeah, I’m a big fan. I was when I grew up, of cartoons. And the cartoons had that quality, that they are timeless. And even not necessarily geographically specified. It’s more universal.

 

RS: Do you remember what cartoons you liked?

RA: All these cartoons about the Wild West in America! I don’t remember the names. And of course these more famous [serials], Tarzan, and The Phantom.

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RS: It took seven years in between each feature in the trilogy, are you developing these the whole time? Are you taking breaks? How long is the development process on all these?

RA: It takes, it has taken, seven years. But the active period when I shoot, when I make the movie, three and a half to four years. So the rest of the time I do something else. So it will not take seven years the next movie we make because I’ve already started. So I will have the next movie released in 2018. That’s my plan.

 

RS: This is your adaptation of “One Thousand and One Nights.” And is it in the same style as the trilogy?

RA: I want to change a little, but I’m not exactly sure how I could do it because it has taken a long time to find this style, so I really want to find something that’s much better before I change. But you know Charlie Chaplin, he found his style after a lot of work, and people used to accuse him, “You repeat yourself all the time,” and he said, “Yes, and I tried to make something else. I tried. But it was worse.” So he went back to his old style.

 

RS: Was that the drama he made, A WOMAN OF PARIS?

RA: Yeah, I don’t remember now.

 

RS: So it will be something in the style that you’re currently doing? Do you have a story, or is it the same kind of sketches?

RA: I have left the linear narrative way of making a movie. I prefer what I call fragments. The fragmentary style. Because I find it richer. It’s inexhaustible. That way of making it. Fragments are inexhaustible.

 

RS: Regarding the main characters, the two salesmen, I mean, they’re very sad and lonely characters, but they’re trying, in their own clumsy way, to be entertaining…

RA: But they are so much inspired by Stan Laurel and Laurel and Hardy, and even Beckett was inspired by that. Waiting For Godot is Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

 

RS: So did you watch Laurel and Hardy growing up?

RA: Very much when I was young. I loved it and I found them so tragic and also funny. Their ambitions to climb the social ladder, the social class order. And they fail all the time.

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RS: Before the interview, you mentioned the Wachowski’s visited the set of A Pigeon…. What did you talk about?

RA: Yeah, they came to me because they loved my movie, YOU THE LIVING, and they had noticed there were some similarities with that movie and the painting history, Germany in the 30s. They came with fantastic gifts for me, two books, one about Otto Dix and one about George Grosz. They came, they passed me and said “We are stopping just to shake hands with you, because we are big fans.” It was very nice.

 

RS: Have you seen any of their movies?

RA: You mean, THE MATRIX? My young colleagues at my company, they have seen the THE MATRIX and they are admirers. But I have not seen these movies.

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RS: I guess I wanted to go back to the film and talk about the bar scene in 1943 where they all sing the song together. Because the film is, it’s one of those films that’s very funny but also has this quiet desperation. But this one scene in the bar is the one that seems to be the most joyous. Do you have fond memories of that period, of the 40s?

RA: It was my birth year, 1943. And you know that was the start of how Nazi Germany was defeated, it was the starting ground. My father was very proud that I was born. He marched soon after they lost in Stalingrad and this sick army, I think it was around 700 soldiers that were surrounded, and were sent to Siberia. So that when they left I think that even Hitler understood that we will not win the war. And that time the people there was an extra military service, because normally it was one year, but they added another year and soldiers sitting there had very little money so it was a nice song about how generous “Limping Lotte” was, would give them a shot for a kiss. So that was a song that I sang myself as a kid.

 

RS: Did you know where the song came from? Is it based on a real person?

RA: No, no. Nobody knows. It’s a typical folklore.

 

RS: It was really striking when you go from that sequence with everybody singing to when you go to the bar in modern times, where everybody’s isolated and alone. Do you think we have lost some aspect of community?

RA: Yeah, I think so. It’s very sad. Because now we have all the resources to communicate, yet in spite of that people are very isolated. I think also that cell phones make you more isolated.  [Laughs]

 

RS: Do you have one?

RA: Yeah, though I forgot it on the plane!

 

RS: Did you get it back?

RA: No, no. When I come home I will buy a new one. A better one. So that was the meaning in it! [Laughs] However, there is the scene in the movie where a sad man is sitting in a restaurant and he’s trying to get into contact with the waiter who is cleaning the tables and so on. And the waiter doesn’t react at all. And the man says ” I understand that I have been ungenerous and greedy all my life. And that’s why I’m so unhappy.” [Laughs]

 

RS: It’s like the key to the whole movie. Yet also comic.

RA: The most dreadful thing I can see is a billionaire that is 90 years old. A 90 year old billionaire is the most tragic thing to see. [Laughs]

FINISHING THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER BOGDANOVICH AND FILIP JAN RYMSZA

May 26, 2015

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 Our story is about a special group of these, the richest, smartest, the chicest. The jet-set ones. Has to do with a kind of voyeurism. I’d call it emotional parasitism. It has to do with the mystique of the he-man. This picture is against he-men. – Orson Welles

The above quote is from Orson Welles in Spain (1966), a 10-minute short made by Albert and David Maysles in which Welles woos potential investors about a bullfighting movie called The Sacred Beasts. The main character was Ernest Hemingway manqué Jake Hannaford, and after Sacred Beasts went bust Welles transferred Hannaford whole into The Other Side of the Wind. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of another kind of machismo, that of a swaggering 70s auteur, with Hannaford now a doomed director (played by John Huston), his downfall captured in a densely edited collage of 35mm, 16mm and 8mm film. Welles would shoot from 1970 – 1976, but like much of his late work, post-production was never completed due to a tangled series of economic calamities, from a producer absconding with money, Welles’ absent business sense, and Iranian investments locked up because of the overthrow of the Shah. The negative was locked in a French lab with competing rights claims from Welles’ partner and collaborator Oja Kodar, his daughter Beatrice Welles, and the Paris film company Les Films de l’Astrophore, run by Mehdi Boushehri (one of the original investors in the project).

For decades now there have been teases that the film, which was completely shot and partially edited by Welles, would see the light of a projector. Today we are closer than ever to that tantalizing goal, thanks to the efforts of producers Filip Jan Rymsza, Frank Marshall and Jens Koethner Kaul, who helped to negotiate an agreement between Kodar, Beatrice Welles and Bousherhi to gain access to the negative. Now the work begins of resurrecting a feature left for dead forty years ago. So Rymsza and the production team (including advisor Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’s friend and a co-star in the film) has started an IndieGogo campaign to raise $2 million to complete the production of The Other Side of the Wind  (you can donate here: www.orsonslastfilm.com). They have much left to do, including logging all of the Welles’ voluminous notes, organizing and scanning the negative, editing based on Welles’ instructions, color-correcting, and producing and mixing the music and effects.

Filip Jan Rymsza and Peter Bogdanovich took some time to talk to me about Welles, The Other Side of the Wind, and the ongoing IndieGogo campaign, getting into the atmosphere on the set, Welles’ famous prudery, and why they chose crowdfunding to get The Other Side of the Wind into the world.

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Peter, could you describe what the atmosphere was like on the set, and Welles’ state of mind going into the feature?

PB: He was very buoyant. He called me, this was when I was playing a different role. I started out playing a cineaste, writing a book about John Huston’s character, and the trick was, he wanted me to be asking these pseudo-intellectual questions, some of which he made up, or I’d have to make up. He wanted me to do it like Jerry Lewis, with the voice. So I would ask questions like [imitating Jerry Lewis], “Do you believe that the cinema is a phallus?” [Joseph McBride claims to be the one who uttered this line in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – we’ll discover who’s right when the film comes out]. The first day of shooting he called and said, “What are you doing Thursday?” I said, I’m going to Texas to shoot The Last Picture Show”, a script that he had read, and what he referred to as “a dirty picture”. He asked if I could go and shoot with him on Thursday, so I said, “What are you shooting? – I’m shooting a dirty picture. You’re shooting a dirty picture so I’m shooting a dirty picture.” And that’s how he would refer to it, jokingly of course. And I went down to Texas for Last Picture Show. By the time we were shooting again on Other Side of the Wind, some months later, I was playing a different part. I ended up playing a leading role. The atmosphere on the set, there wasn’t very many people there…Orson was very jolly, very happy. He was always in very good humor when he was shooting.

 

I’m curious about the tone of the film. Is it a satire of the film business?

PB: That’s hard to say because I haven’t seen it – nobody’s seen the whole film. There is a satirical aspect to it. There is also a tragic element too. It begins with his death. At the beginning Huston’s character dies at the end of his 70th birthday celebration, in a car accident. You see pictures of the burnt-out Porsche he was driving. So it begins right away with tragedy. And it’s funny at times. But it’s not really a comedy at all. When Huston asked him what the movie was about, he said, “It’s about us, John. About a bastard director.”

 

Do you think there’s anything autobiographical in there?

PB: Oh yeah. I’m sure of it. He really wanted to play the part himself. But he felt Huston was more right for it. He said,  “I should play the part. It’s a goddamn good part. But he’s right for it, damn it.”

 

What was his relationship like with Huston?

PB: They were long-time friends. They both made their first feature the same year, 1941, and Orson was in a couple of films that Huston made. They were friendly. John was particularly impressed with Orson’s method of shooting, because it was so unorthodox. So unlike the big studio pictures that John used to make. John found it refreshing to have a small crew, changing the dialogue a little bit every day. What seemed like a haphazard form of shooting but it wasn’t, because Orson knew exactly what he wanted to do.

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Peter, you mentioned the unorthodox style of the film. He’s using 8mm, 16mm, it seems ahead of its time. The editing seems very dense. Did he tell you what style he was going for?

PB: I remember him saying that the editing would take a while. The kind of thing you can shoot in eight weeks but takes eight years to cut. It ended up more so [laughs]. The conceit of the picture is that you’re seeing a kind of documentary of Huston’s last day on earth. It’s put together from all this footage that was supposedly shot on the day of his birthday by various people. Students, TV news, all these different kinds of media were invited. In the story, after he died, the documentary of that last day is put together. That’s what we’re seeing. Interspersed with that, during the party sequence (the bulk of the movie), they stop and they show clips from the movie the Huston character is making. They show it in the projection room, and eventually in a drive-in screen. Which are also very densely cut. Shot in 35mm, and very, I guess, arty and complicated. Orson cut most of that stuff already.

 

I was going to ask, of all of the challenges of this film, the greatest would have to be editing the rest of it together, considering the existing footage. Have you hired an editor?

FR: Yeah, we have. Alfonso Gonçalves, who has worked with quite a few interesting filmmakers. He’s involved with the Todd Haynes, they did Mildred Pierce together. He did Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive. Even though he’s had success he’s chosen to remain in art cinema. With each film, his editing takes on the character of the film, so he’s somebody who has amazing intuition, and was malleable. We were very excited by the prospect of working and collaborating with him.

We’ve done a lot of due diligence in terms of going back through the script, the notes. There were five feet of scripts, an enormous amount of data to process. All the way from the beginning, through the very long process, as Orson would re-write. To the cutting script, which had a lot of annotations in it. Orson sent it back and forth, a lot of times across the Atlantic – he had his editors doing some work in Paris. There is a wealth of information.

 

 Filip, how did you first get involved?

FR: Six years ago. It started here in Cannes. I was simply told without any sort of detail that the rights were available, and that was my entry point. That plus the script. That was enough to plant the seed, to pique my curiosity, and then for the next three years I was trying to find my bearings, figure out what it is that that meant, that the rights were available. That was the biggest challenge. It was a very complicated title. That was how the process began, finding a way to acquire the negative and be able to finish the film.

 

The negative was at a French lab that went bankrupt?

FR: That is correct. It was under court order, because the French operate under Napoleonic law. So moral rights were split in a way where it was up to me to bring all the parties together, and figure out a way to lift that court order. Everybody had to agree to a method by which to finish the film, but also to allow us to do so.

 

Who were all of the parties that you had to bring together?

FR: Three main parties. Mehdi Boucherie, Oja Kodar [Welles’ partner and collaborator], and Orson’s daughter, Beatrice, who is in charge of the estate.

 

How difficult was it to get them on the same page?

FR: It was a challenge. Everybody is motivated by something else. The commonality here is everyone eventually wanted the film done. The emphasis now has shifted to getting the film done.

 

Why did you decide to go the crowdfunding route with Indiegogo?

FR: They approached us back in December, and we started talking about it internally. Everybody decided this was very much in keeping with the way that Orson went about his films. And being able to retain control, something that he fought for his entire career. We just thought it would be a wonderful thing to bring the film to his fans, and secondarily, it’s a very expensive undertaking, which bucks the independent film model. It’s a film that’s expensive to finish, also we had to account for the rights, and it would be different if this was a restoration or re-release, but this is a new film, that will have a 2015 release. We needed the extra money to be able to finish it and bring it to distributors, and that way we could retain control.

 

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What stage are you at now? Have you scanned the negative?

FR: No, it’s still in the future. We’re still doing a lot of organizing. Once you start scanning you really have to go into it knowing exactly what you’re looking at. What we’ve been doing is cataloguing, and putting together the negative in a strategic way, putting it into scenes, and separating the camera negative from the inter-negative. So once it goes into the scan we’ll know where everything is. We’re also very much relying on the IndieGogo campaign because this will help us accelerate this process. These funds are important for us to finish the film in a manner we think is fitting of such a great piece of art.

PB: It’s a great help that Orson left so many notes, so that post-production is already organized for us. Orson would change things every day.

 

How detailed are the notes, do they include instructions from shot to shot?

FR: Yeah. Some of them address specific scenes he was working on, certain things he wanted printed. Quite a bit talked about the Lilie Palmer scenes [she plays Zarah Valeska, a ranch owner], specific things that he wanted. Even if you look at some of the rushes, certain scenes he had already blown up. They are fairly extensive.

 

If you do not get the full amount requested in the IndieGogo campaign, are you still confident you will get the film released?

FR: Yeah, we’re confident, but we don’t want to take any urgency from the campaign. It is not an arbitrary amount that we landed on. It’s part of a bigger budget. The budget for this is much bigger than two million, but that’s what we thought we would need to do it quickly. If we fall short of the goal, obviously we’re still going to finish the film, but the process could drag out. Now somehow we’ll have to find, whatever the shortfall is, will still have to be accounted for.

 

Does the film push anything content-wise for Welles? I’ve read that he was prudish when it came to sexual matters.

PB: That’s true, Orson was. I think Oja Kodar, his partner and writer, who worked very closely with him, she being European (Hungarian and Croatian), she had a different kind of attitude about sexual stuff. She was more open and free about it. Orson was usually amused by her. I wouldn’t say embarrassed, but she knew how to make him blush, which was quite charming. He was reticent about sexual stuff, but he made an extraordinarily sexy sequence in The Other Side of the Wind, in the front seat of a car. Quite an amazing sequence. Let me put it this way, he overcame his reticence, and came up with a very powerful sex scene.

FR: It’s interesting on the note of authorship. He could do it maybe because he was wearing the mask of the John Huston director, so that was liberating. It was something that he saw as taboo, and in this regard, could justify it in that manner.

 

How much input to Oja have on the script?

PB: They worked together on it from the beginning.

 

Was there improvisation on the set?

PB: No, he was very specific about what he wanted us to say. Usually he would come up with a slightly revised version of what was in the script. He would go to the typewriter and re-type it, give it to us, and say, “This is what I want you to say”. There wasn’t a lot of ad-libbing.

 

Peter, considering how many formats Welles was using for this film, and the density of the editing – how do you think he would’ve adapted to using digital tools?

PB: I think he would be absolutely thrilled with the digital process. I don’t know if he would do it himself, like he did with film. He did all the editing himself on a flatbed. With the digital he would love it, because it’s so fast. He would have welcomed this technology with open arms.

FR: He was very playful, I was told, from the various editors that we talked to. He wanted to see a lot of things. He would have various editors cut the same sequence in different ways. There was a playfulness to it, and obviously in an online editing system, he would be able to do that, backtracking the clips and stuff, having to print all that – it certainly would have made his process much easier.

PB: Oh God, yes.

 

You are still aiming to get the film released for 2015?

FR: If we can get the money it becomes realistic. But if we don’t, then less so. We never operated with a delivery date in mind. We always thought it was a process. There are so many unknowns. We certainly didn’t realize we would be going through so many scripts, which we’ve been going through since November. We certainly didn’t realize that with the negative, there would be so much material. 1.6 tons. And a lot of it is already cut up into tiny pieces. A lot of it will have to be reconstituted. And it’s all mixed up. Initially it wasn’t really well catalogued. Everyone was working off of a handwritten inventory from 1974. So having to go back and create something for a digital workflow – put everything in an Excel spreadsheet and make things searchable – these things take a lot of time. At first I thought we could knock that out in a few weeks, and here we are now, having started in November, and still doing parts of it. It’s labor intensive. The more resources we have, the better and faster we can do it.

 

So you intend to have a full theatrical run once the film is ready?

FR: Absolutely. That’s why we’ve been going through this process, to bring on a like-minded distributor, somebody who saw a theatrical life. We just think there’s a wonderful marketing opportunity to something like this. It’s not an obvious film, but we feel there’s a way that this can be done. Our whole approach has been to do this in the manner it would have been released in ’76 or ’77. So we hope it’ll have a nice long theatrical life.

PB: It’s not dated. The material isn’t dated. It’s a period piece now, because it was shot in the ‘70s, but I don’t believe it’s dated in any way. It’s very modern. And it deals with egos, deception, betrayal, and all the things that Orson was interested in.

DTV ACTION ITEM: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JESSE V. JOHNSON

March 26, 2013

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To make a thoughtful direct-to-video action movie is about as difficult as recovering from a meaty right hook to the jaw from Stone Cold Steve Austin. Working on shoestring budgets and two-week deadlines, most DTV product is a jumbled mess of plot holes and broken bones. So when a director is able to compose a coherent space and worldview out of such chaos, it’s a minor miracle. With The Package (2012), Jesse V. Johnson joins Isaac Florentine (Undisputed III) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) in accomplishing this magic act. It is a simple story well told, of a mob muscleman (Austin) tasked to deliver a mysterious package to a gangster known only as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). Its contents are sought by a third gang, and what was a simple job for Austin turns into a war. Johnson strips down dialogue and establishes character through fighting styles: Austin is a deliberate and quiet thinker, waiting slowly for an opening for his devastating punch, while the flamboyant Lundgren speaks in long winding monologues before springing for a quick and outrageous kill. Johnson shoots fights up close but in wide angles, so the need for cutting is minimized and blows register with traumatic impact. Jesse V. Johnson has been a stuntman (The Amazing Spider-Man), a writer (The Butcher, 2009) and a director, and he took some time out to speak to me about his varied career adventures. We discuss Dolph Lundgren’s working methods, the fun and frustrations of working in DTV, and the motivation behind his viral Wonder Woman fan trailer.

One of the things I admire about THE PACKAGE is how the fight scenes tell an ongoing story. Steve Austin’s character moves slowly against quicker opponents, but maneuvers himself around them to deliver one of his knockout blows. Lundgren’s character is flamboyant and dramatic, and his brawls are equally showy.  Are you planning these fight scenes in the writing process, or does this action storytelling occur more on-set, with your stunt coordinator and actors?

I had planned to take my regular fight choreographer, Luke Lafontaine, to Canada with me, but that would have cost the production some of their tax incentive, so I was urged to hire a local Canadian, Paul Wu, a very capable young man. I didn’t write this script, but we discussed the various characters’ fighting styles at some length, and how they should reflect the physical size and fictional background of the key players.

There were two or three rehearsal sessions, where details were further refined, and then we shot.  Steve and Dolph are both so expert in this kind of business, that they adapt their choreography to what they know works for them and always operate within their comfort zone. I hired the adversaries, the other fighters, and was quite involved with Steve’s fights as to where and how they would escalate.

From that perspective, I wanted the adversaries all to look extremely energetic, highly technical and motivated to fight, while Steve’s character actually tries to talk his way out of every confrontation, or looks for a way to avoid the fight. It’s subtle, but I believe it makes him look like the more honorable man.  Without realizing it, you’re rooting for this battle-weary warrior with heart – he knows everyone he tangles with is going to end up in the hospital, there’s really nothing to prove anymore . I know guys like this, they are the calmest, gentlest souls, but God, you know if it came down to it, in a physical confrontation, you’d be hamburger meat in their hands.

With the actual choreography, I wanted to see Steve get punished, violently. I wanted the audience to be pissed, to accept that a line had been crossed and it was OK for this massive guy to get mad and get even. I feel many of these DTV movie fighters can end up looking like bullies – and if there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s a bully. If the supposed “good guy” overreacts, looks for trouble, uses guns that are bigger than everyone else, it’s all material that turns you against your protagonist.

Because of Austin’s incredible size, the audience would buy that he wasn’t going to get KO’d when he got beaten, taking this awful punishment. Then they root for him as he waits for the opportunity to throw this killer haymaker – few actors can get away with that, but if you’ve seen the size of Steve’s arms and hands, you know that is just not a bomb you want coming down on you.

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Dolph Lundgren is very funny in THE PACKAGE. How much did you work with him in hitting this very theatrical tone?

We discussed it at length in pre-production — the silk dressing gown, hair, aged looking skin (to be honest I wasn’t at all convinced it was a good idea), but, when an actor is insistent, you know he’s going to be motivated, and more than anything I wanted him motivated.

When I saw what he was doing with the character, the slightly over the top take, I simply gave him enough room to do what he wanted.  That meant setting the stage in such a way that we could run his scenes as long takes, so the performance could build and remain in continuity – it would have been very difficult for him to have pulled this off without that methodology.

We’d shoot our coverage from the various angles that would allow me to cut in an artistic manner, but we ran all of the coverage as a complete take of the scene.  This sounds obvious, but it is rarely done, in these kinds of movies, it is laborious and will mean a lot more editing, and to a degree more time on set, but boy do your performances improve, and the actors know exactly where they’re supposed to be (emotionally, etc.,) at any time, so they have that look of belonging in their eyes – which can often be a lost, the kind of, “why am I here look” – if you’re not careful it’s all too easy to see it appearing on their faces on a short schedule.

The scene where he makes a fruit smoothie while interrogating a bleeding man really encapsulates the savagery and humor of Lundgren’s character. And also happens to be hilarious. Could you talk about shooting that scene? Did Lundgren improvise at all or was that exactly as written?

That scene was exactly as written by Derek Kolstad, as I mentioned before, there is almost zero improvising with Lundgren, he arrives ready to go and you set the stage in a manner that allows him to work most efficiently.

I feel it is my job as a director to gently feel out how to get the very best from my performers, and then make them feel like I am collaborating with them and watching, listening, able to bounce ideas back and forth, when the opportunity is right.  Compliment and applaud when the timing is favorable.  We talked about blocking (camera movement and placement) a lot.  I wasn’t allowed to show blood when the bullets hit people, so you notice the camera has to get all the way around behind the chair so we only see the back of the chair exploding – you imagine you’ve seen something violent, but there is actually no blood in those hits.

I saw the movie for the first time at a public screening, where there were a lot of WWE fans present. Steve was signing autographs afterward, and they starting laughing during that scene, I thought I was going to get beaten up when they found out who I was – then half way through the scene I realized they were laughing with us, not at us, it was really quite fun. It is very difficult to predict how straight-faced comedy will be received.

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How much input do Lundgren and Austin have in their fight sequences? Is there a lot of give and take between them, fight choreographer Paul Wu and yourself?

These guys both know exactly what they can do well, and where they don’t look good. Lundgren has Barry Evans with him, Barry is a Kyokushin karate master, and has trained Lundgren for 40 years, he watches all of the choreography and has great insight.  Steve has been fighting for a living for thirty odd years, he knows what works best for him – these guys will say if they don’t like anything!

The choreography was quite straightforward, but the dialogue is always tricky, you’re trying to work it into the scene, without it seeming clunky or unbelievable, do you stop and chat (do your dialogue) or chat between punches? You rehearse and sometimes shoot it both ways if you can’t get a meter reading, but usually it is obvious.

With pros like Lundgren and Austin they get it quickly and we all nod our head and know it worked, other times you’re just not so sure.  With the fight itself [between them], we had about three hours, I wish I could have had three days. God, I’d have given you something epic!  But, these films are not laid out like that – they are a Rubik’s cube puzzle, how do you tell your story with flourish and some kind of artfulness in such a short amount of time?

I knew more than anything else I wanted to treat both these guys as mythic adversaries that require a certain kind of photography: low “tracking inwards” shots. The camera is always subservient, always catching up, you never look down on them, they always get the back light, the rim light – they never talk about themselves, have the other characters do that, in fact if at all possible have the other characters do all the talking.  With Steve, I treat him as I would if I were working with John Wayne, and I have read everything I can get my hands on, on that actor.

In the fight scene, they are evenly matched, but Lundgren is ill, and towards the end of the fight he loses steam, and with it the will to live. Austin capitalizes on this, but even then he doesn’t want to kill him, until he is left no choice.

The guys rehearsed this fight scene at quite some length, but, it all went in the trash when we ran out of time, and had to come up with the choreography for the second half of the fight on set – with the producers there, tapping their wrist watches, it was a real shame, but, we’ve all done it before. Lundgren was incredibly helpful, I cannot remember exactly what went down but he came up with a way of getting a chunk of the fighting shot without relighting, something really technical based but a simple solution that neither I or Kim Miles the DP had thought of, and it worked, it was pretty amazing really.

I thanked him profusely afterward, he laughed as he walked away saying something about fifty action movies, five that he directed himself, and that was that.

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How has your relationship been with the producers on your DTV movies? Do you have freedom to shoot what you like as long as you meet your budget?

I had seventeen days to shoot the movie, we had heavy snow for half a day, and lost another half a day’s shooting to corrupted software.  The snow day allowed me to invent a scene with Darren Shahlavi’s character at the gas station, we just kept adding backstory, it was quite funny, we shot it about ten times, adding another line and another line each time, as we watched the snow slowly melt outside (where we were supposed to be shooting a different scene). I think we used the second-to-last take.  The last take was too much like Dr. Evil talking about his childhood in Belgium.

My relationship with my producers is usually good, or I tend not to do the project in the first place. I have become pretty good at judging character, my family are horse-traders and market men, so I think it is in my DNA. I look past the smiles and promises, and try to see what they’re like after the seventeenth hour on a day where we’re going into overtime, if I imagine they’re going to be destructive and spiteful, I move on, or continue with caution – if I can’t afford to turn down the job.

I have never had anything resembling creative freedom on these projects, but depending on how you align yourself with your employers from the start, you can attempt to make a movie close to your ideals, or something that matches the formula of what you would like to see in the theaters as much as is possible – it is bloody difficult, and not at all easy to do this by the way.

On The Package – I had to make a film with an overt killing or beating on every page into a TV safe movie, no blood, no swearing, no nudity, no profanity, or the film was going to be re-edited after my leaving. I knew this from the get go, and that was that, take it or leave it! I knew if there was a director’s cut, it would never see the light of day, so I decided to work within the system – The Dark Knight is a great example of smart violence in this respect – you think you’ve seen something that you really haven’t.  Cause and effect, sound effects, but no blood.  I’ve had people tell me they thought The Package was one of the most violent films they’d seen, I asked them to tell me which scene particularly, they usually describe a scene like the fruit smoothie scene where there is actually nothing shown at all, just implied.

I accepted this lack of blood as a great challenge, and am complimented in situations where people erroneously mention the amount violence in the movie.   It may sound corny and old hat, but given the right stimulus the human imagination is far more explicit than any fake imagery we can come up with.

I am not sure how many more DTV movies I want to make, I am positioning myself to move on to larger movies and intend to.  I am not a fan of watching many DTV movies on the whole, and prefer a film that reaches a larger audience, has greater production values associated with a larger budget and a recognizable cast of characters, but also a chance to work with the very best crews and technicians in the business. It is extraordinarily frustrating at times to work in DTV. We hire the cheapest talent available, while on a studio movie you hire the best available – that may not sound so very different, but it is exhausting to put your heart and soul into a project to be let down by shoddy sound design, or editorial incompetence, or a prop that looks awful, or any manner of other manageable issues.

However on The Package I was very lucky – it was one of those rare occasions when I able to work with a stellar technical crew. We were scheduled to shoot right after the Christmas holidays, so Justin Bursch and Jamie Goerhing were able to assemble a sensational team who otherwise might not have been available to us.  It did mean contending with the inclement weather, of course.  But, Kim Miles and his camera, grip, and lighting team are some of the very best working up there. Kim shot the Mortal Kombat series and always has great energy – I was very lucky to have him on board. My point is though, it is a gamble.

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In many Hollywood action films, the shaky camera, quick edit aesthetic has made it harder to recognize the athleticism of stuntmen. Your work is clear and crisp in comparison. Does your experience as a stuntman inform your shooting and blocking of fight scenes? Do you feel an obligation to show these scenes with clarity so the stuntmen’s work can be truly appreciated?

No obligation to the stunt men per se, I just don’t find that technique very “of the moment”, it feels old hat and passe.  It was/is used a lot to hide the fact that actors didn’t really move very quickly, or look very good; a long lens and a bit of wobble and you try to inject some energy into it.

Handheld has its place for sure, and can be eloquent beautiful and artistic – just don’t use it as a cover for poor choreography. My personal credo is something Robert Capa supposedly said: “If your pictures don’t look good you’re not close enough to the action.” I like to put a wide lens on and get right into the action, where kicks are glancing off the Steadicam, and everyone starts getting irritated, that’s when the footage starts to look visceral and exciting for me.

I competed in martial arts as a teenager, and I loved feeling my heart race, stepping into the ring to fight, it was so intoxicating I was almost passing out before the first punch had been thrown, which was when I usually ended up on my behind.  I wasn’t a very spectacular fighter, but getting hit, and seeing the room spin, watching the guy with pure aggression in his eyes come at you, and not being able to move fast enough to do anything about it, how exhilarating is that?  That’s the surge of emotions I try to recreate in my movie fights. I don’t like watching from afar, there’s no thrill, it’s sometimes necessary of course within the context of the story – but my favorite place to be is within the action, getting spattered with blood and mud and beer.

I read that stuntwork runs in your family, starting with your grandfather. Can you discuss your family’s history in the business, and how you got started in it?

My grandfather was a racehorse trainer and had many wonderful horses, he traveled the world and had many adventures, a real man, quick with his fists but always generous with his time and money to the deserving.  He provided horses to movies as a way of making a little extra cash. He had a wild thoroughbred that a Hollywood movie wanted, and his son was the only person he trusted to ride it, so they gave my uncle Vic Armstrong his first job, doubling Sophia Loren.  He has gone on to have a pretty good career, with an Oscar and BAFTA award.  I started out carrying his stunt bag and storyboarding action for him to direct as he cut his teeth as a second unit (action unit) director.  I went about things slightly differently, I have Irish blood and am slightly bloody minded – obstinate, and like to do things my own way. There were times when I wished I could have kept my mouth shut, and just worked with him, but we have to do what our heart tells us, or we’re nothing but pawns.

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How do you think the stuntman’s job has changed with the evolution of digital technology? What were the major differences between working on an analog blockbuster like TOTAL RECALL compared to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?

Total Recall had many Vista Vision plate shots, very early CG work, so it wasn’t totally analog by any means.  Really, regarding the differences in stunts from then to now, you just have to understand what the effect is you need to give, and work within that technology.

For the individual performer, it is really no great change – there are always specifics to what you’re doing, stunt-wise; you have to fall here, miss the sharp edge, don’t knock over the actress, get through the candy glass, don’t go out of frame, and avoid the pyrotechnic effect that will blow up as you hit the ground – it’s very often the same now as it once was.

There is always room for error, and it is simply not an exact science – you do everything in your power to shift the odds to your favor. The survivors, the pros, the super stars within the stunt business know this and are disciplined, intelligent human beings, just as they were seventy years ago.

Wire work has become an incredible art, and is a technology all of its own. it was always there, but so slow and problematic, you’d have to use fine piano wire (Mary Poppins, etc.,). Now it’s easy to remove the wires in post – so there’s no need for many of the old stunt effects – air rams, high falls, Russian swings, these effects can all be achieved far more safely with wires – but they still require a stuntman to test the wire rigs, and more stunt men to rig and operate them.

You must evolve with the technology and embrace it, you keep learning, experimenting and challenging yourself. There’s always a place for the professional, who is willing to risk it all for the shot, he’ll do it within the realms of his experience and will have trained hard and rehearsed, but it’s still a stunt, and he is still a professional (If you cannot do a second take it’s not a stunt but an accident).

There is a great desire right now within Hollywood to go back to a more romantic era of action, to give the audience the impression that it is seeing real danger, to do the stunts without/with less CG, without blue screen, I like this, and think it’s cool, but frankly, I think the investment should be made in character and story telling. The action defines itself from these ingredients first and foremost.

What are the most dangerous stunts that you have been asked to perform? Have you ever turned down a job because of safety concerns?

There used to be a live show guy that would go through the stunt book calling people from A-Z to do ridiculous stunts for cash in hand, in Vegas, diving into six inches of water, dropping inside a car 200 feet onto a pile of cars. I turned those down, I have no interest in risking my life that way.

The stunts I have performed are all valid, but nothing particularly special. I am not a great fan of stunts with animals. Horses are problematic for me, as are diving near sharks, or scrambling through the Thai jungle with snakes and spiders.

Although I don’t remember often being “scared”, just focused – you have to realize you are truly living in these moments of fear, your senses are racing, you can think about seven things at once, and then shut everything down and focus like a laser pinpoint on the task at hand, and time does often feel like it is slowing down, it is a wonderful dynamic rush – your adrenaline is often surging, and you will feel bullet proof, all the rehearsals have created a muscle memory, and you come out of it on top, you’re not dead, and it’s over. Great fun.

I always feel the biggest sense of responsibility when I’m coordinating. I am very protective of my performers. Last year I was directing the action unit on a Russian movie in Utah  [Bilet na Vegas], and we had a ’67 Cadillac convertible careening backwards out of control on the wrong side of a freeway headed towards an eighteen wheeler. The Cadillac was then supposed to swerve, missing the eighteen wheeler, and perform a reverse 180, effectively correcting itself, and drive away.

I was very tense, we rehearsed for weeks, and knew how to do it safely, but there are so many troubling factors: should the Cadillac turn over, could the passengers (all stunt performers) pull their heads down into their laps using their straps and avoid being decapitated, would the eighteen wheeler hit them as they swerved around it….  It was nerve wracking, but it was a very nice one to pull off successfully.

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How did you get involved in the Wonder Woman fan trailer (watch here)? There are still not a lot of strong female characters in the superhero world – did that factor into you taking the job?

I wanted to test a camera system [the Sony FS700] that I was planning to shoot a passion project feature on. I chose to make a short film about one of the most maligned super heroes there is. Talk about messing up a cool character.

She was an awesome hero created in the dark days of WWII to give hope to the women working in the factories, to inspire them to do their bit for the war effort, a woman who didn’t need a man, she was a warrior – great stuff, then in the 80′s they put a non-physical actress in high-heels and had her wobbling around, jumping and rolling, throwing punches like a seven year old (Yes, I realize she is sacred to many 40 year old men, but I have daughters, I’m looking for a role model for them, someone they can root for).

You cannot blend these two versions, so I decided to go back to the original, I put my spin on it, with the scars and bullet-scraped armor, but it was all in the spirit of the original (I laugh hard when people ask why I didn’t stick to the original Wonder Woman!). It was an extremely fun project that really hit a chord. I wish I could afford to do a short or fan trailer every month.

It has landed me more studio meetings than any of my features, so it has served its purpose – thank you, Wonder Woman.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR ROBERT DAY

January 29, 2013

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At the age of 90, British director Robert Day has seen it all. Starting as a London clapper boy in the 1940s, he became a highly sought after camera operator in the 50s, before settling into a long and varied directing career starting with The Green Man (1956). Working on everything from Boris Karloff monster movies to Peter Sellers comedies, he was a jack of all trades before love brought him to Hollywood in the late ’60s, where he became a prolific television director through the 1980s. I was able to have a telephone chat with the gregarious craftsman, where we touched on the different phases of his wildly productive life.

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What was your childhood like in London? Did you get into movies at a young age?

RD: My Dad was a scientist  and my mom took care of the kids. The first movie I remember watching was one with Charlie Chaplin, a talkie, it gave me a throbbing headache

From your time as a camera operator, you worked on the great film noir They Made Me A Fugitive (1947). It paints post-war London as a foggy and nightmarish place. How did you and director of photography Otto Heller create this atmosphere?

RD: It was all in the lighting. I did over 20 movies with Otto. He came from Czechoslovakia and I was the first one to work with him in Britain.

You also worked with directors Carol Reed and Edward Dmytryk as a camera operator. What did you learn from these two that aided your own career as a director?

RD I learned a lot of technical things from both Carol Reed and  Edward Dmytryk. They liked me so they helped me a lot.

You worked with Dmytryk in the UK soon after he was blacklisted in Hollywood. What was your opinion of the blacklist, and were you politically involved in this period?

RD  The blacklist was awful. I was working so much I didn’t have time for politics.

How did you land your first directing job on The Green Man?

RD: Well, I was working as a cameraman with Sidney Gilliat, the director. I talked with him about directing a movie myself, and he said maybe one of these days you will. And sure enough, months later, I had this offer from him.

Were you nervous?

RD: I was overwhelmed – flabbergasted. Alistair Sim, the star of the movie, offered suggestions. He was a very erudite man and helped me a lot.

Later you worked on two horror movies with Boris Karloff (The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, both 1958), produced by Richard and Alex Gordon. How was it working with Karloff?

RD: A wonderful man, very low key. He was always willing to take advice about anything. He always did what I wanted! We remained friends forever. When Boris was working he was really into the film. He was always prepared.

 Now you had a different experience with Peter Sellers on Two Way Stretch (1960)

RD: I didn’t like him very much as a man. I had various arguments with him, but I always got my way, through various tricks. I would bring him around to my way of thinking. Sometimes very difficult. But I always got my way and wouldn’t relax until I did. Peter Sellers was extremely neurotic and at the core very insecure. He was really best at impersonating characters, rather than being a good actor. Two Way Stretch was really early in his working career. Halfway through the movie he was given a “star” complex. The film people felt he was up and coming.

At what point he refused to come to the set?

RD: Yes, because of one of the arguments we had. He kept me waiting four days.

What did you have to do to convince him?

RD: Wait. Just wait. I was chewing my nails. But eventually he came around. I wouldn’t give in. He had this cadre of people around him that would say one thing, and I was advising him to go in another direction. And finally he came around.

Did you ever work with him again?

RD: I would never work with him again. But he didn’t seem to hold anything against me. I couldn’t go through that drama again.

 What attracted you to the TARZAN series, which you made four of?

RD: Opportunity, I thought the films would broaden my experiences.

 What made you leave the UK for the U.S.?

RD:  I was working on a Tarzan film and Terry Thomas, an old friend from The Green Man, brought the American actress Dorothy Provine to the set. She had just finished an Italian film called Kiss the Girls and Make them Die (1966). She came to my set, and we enjoyed each other’s company so much, we then decided to get married. It was a wonderful relationship I had with her. We were married for 43 years.

What were the differences between working in U.S. and the U.K.?

RD: Things moved faster in America. Much faster. I preferred it. I really enjoyed working that way much more. But I think films at the time had a little more substance in the UK.

One of your telefilms is The Initiation of Sarah (1978), seemingly influenced by Carrie (1976). Were you aware conscious of Carrie’s influence, and what do you recall of the production?

RD: Regarding Carrie, I am not sure. Working with Shelley Winters was tough and not very rewarding, although it was late in her career.

One of your last movies was Higher Ground (1988) with John Denver. How did you decide which projects to take on at this stage in your career?

RD: I thoroughly liked working with John Denver.  For me making films was always about the people, the cultures, and the environment.

 

ZOMBIE WATCH: A CONVERSATION WITH DAVE KEHR ABOUT PAUL W.S. ANDERSON

September 18, 2012

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It was a banner weekend for Paul Andersons, as Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul W.S. Anderson topped the specialty and worldwide box office. As PTA’s vaultingly ambitious The Master has understandably dominated the cultural conversation, I wanted to create some space to discuss the ever-workmanlike W.S. One of the few directors to fully embrace 3D, creating dazzling depth effects on half the budget of most Hollywood spectaculars, he’s an endlessly resourceful stylist. Despite this, W.S. has long been one of the worst reviewed directors in the United States. One of his staunchest defenders has been New York Times film critic Dave Kehr,  so I went to see Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (rated 30% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) with him at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan. Afterward we sat down and had an informal chat about Paul W.S. Anderson’s work and career. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

RES: So you were first impressed by Paul W.S. Anderson by seeing Shopping (1994) at the Toronto Film Festival?

DK: I’m pretty sure that’s where I saw it. British punk movie, big rock score. Stylistically, it’s not as accomplished as his later work, but the elements are there. It’s all nighttime, it’s all glare and chase sequences that move into the next one. And the people who consider themselves the last representatives of humanity in a corporate world.

RES: Yes, his villains are always the ultra-privatized, corporate overlords.

DK: The classic figure, right. I interviewed him once [you can read the 2002 NY Times interview here], and he was a very affable guy, and was startled that anyone would want to talk to him. It was really an effort to track down his publicist, because he had given up on getting recognition years before that, even.

RES: Once he made Mortal Kombat (1995), he became associated with video games, which was just considered trash.

DK: No more serious consideration necessary, the guy makes video game movies. And he’s still making cheesy video game movies…

RES: But excellent ones!

DK: Yeah. And he’s seen a lot of movies. Who he reminds me of is Fritz Lang. I’m pretty sure I asked him about that, and he said, “oh yeah, love him.”

RES: The connection with Lang is with his use of geometric figures?

DK: All the underground stuff, worlds within worlds, imagined conspiracies. In particular the space used in Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), the geometry and symmetry.

RES: Also similar is the puppet-master, a Mabuse-like figure.

DK: Sure.

RES: Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil, Joan Allen in Death Race (2008)…

DK: The sinister boss figure hovering over all these people, and making them move and jump around. In the Resident Evil series, I guess it’s the computer, the Red Queen.

RES: It’s the corporation itself, a faceless entity.

DK: Yeah, it has its own life.

RES: It’s the entity that makes them jump around, but it’s how Anderson shoots this jumping around that makes him special. How would you describe how he shoots action?

DK: It’s hard not to think of the musical. It’s so perfectly choreographed. It reminds me of the first Hong Kong stuff in the 70s, with a real sense of exuberance in action that you haven’t seen in a long time. Real physical action, not just shooting guns at each other. Jumping off of buildings…

RES: While shooting guns…

DK: That came a little bit later, but what I’m thinking of is Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (1986). I don’t know if it stands up now. That style has been so overdone to the point of absurdity.

RES: Well, Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) was rather disappointing.

DK: Wasn’t it? I turned it off. So much CGI…

RES: Yeah, even with their weapons. And that’s the thing with Anderson’s films. There is tons of CGI, but they’re also very physical…

DK: He never gives you the sense that he’s faking it. The stunt choreography is really good. He clearly has a personal interest in that stuff. Getting to Budd Boetticher – the way people fight each other in Paul Anderson movies, it’s that kind of psych-out thing that Boetticher does. Through dialogue, through intimidation. It’s like a chess game, they’re anticipating each other’s moves. The fun is in seeing the twist at the end – how Milla Jovovich really out-thought the other person.

RES: Like in the opening of Retribution, Milla grabs a chain and lock, and works a number of variations on how she uses it in attacks. I did read that interview you did with him, and I remember he mentioned that he comes from a family of coal miners, explaining his fascination with claustrophobic spaces.

DK: Even when there are exteriors in his films, they turn out to be interiors. [In Retribution what looks like Tokyo, NYC and Moscow turn out to be an underground testing facility built by the evil Umbrella Corporation.]

RES: Each entry in the Resident Evil series has a very specific sense of place. The first was an underground labyrinth, the second an urban hellscape, the third a version of the West, and the fourth is the Western coast of the U.S. In Retribution, Anderson devises a plot where he can jump between these differing spaces.

DK: Although he does add the suburban section here. It’s fun to see her in normal clothes, playing at playing the mom. Then when she straps on the S&M gear, it’s very satisfying.

RES: Yes, the suburban sequence is really poking fun at traditional family drama, or even sitcom scenarios. It acknowledges the artificiality of genre constructions right up front.

DK: He really lays it on thick, with the deaf child. A perfect Spielberg suburb that turns out to be a deliberately unreal nightmare. These stock figures are actually trying to kill you.

RES: He shows these stock characters as stock – disposable. Even the little girl, who is the emotional center of the movie, is presented as fake, a clone with imprinted memories.

DK: Yeah and the little girl realizes it too, that Milla is not her mommy. I’m trying to visualize the scene where they see the cloning room. Are there any male characters there?

RES: No, I don’t think so. You see the clones of Milla, Michelle Rodriguez and the girl. Which goes to show how subordinate the male characters are in this film, they don’t even get decent clones.

DK: You hear complaints about there being a lack of action films with women, well, this is one of the most successful series out there, and it stars a woman. There are no compromises here, it’s just not a big deal at this point, in the Resident Evil world.

RES: What did you think of the use of 3D in this one?

DK: Great. It never seemed arbitrary, it always worked. I like all that stuff in the white prison cell, the geometrical form, the Umbrella design, it looks flat until something  pops out. It just has stuff you don’t see in other movies, including the lighting, backlit scenes with one or two lights. He doesn’t fill the frame the way Cameron does. Cameron has to have something going on in every corner of the frame. Anderson seems to be aware that, 3D isn’t just putting everything in one frame, it’s directing like as you would a normal film. Anderson knows how to put those shots together so it doesn’t feel disruptive, isn’t jarring. You need good solid old-fashioned match-shots on action. Where a lot of 3D directors get hung up is, they’re just framing every shot for what it is, and not thinking about what comes after it. It gets irritating after a while, with depth-of-field changing left and right.

RES: That’s what causes people to get headaches…

DK: It does for me. It pains me watching that stuff. I can’t help trying to put it together in my head.

RES: You saw The Avengers (2012).

DK: Every shot is just a guy shooting, with no sense of who he’s shooting at or chasing after. There’s just no relationship between this action and that action. It’s either complete in itself or it’s forgotten by the next shot. So it’s not about the logic of how you fight an army of 12 invincible zombies and get out alive, which has a certain amount of plausibility in the Anderson because the strategy is there, the athletic abilities are there, the ballet-like quality of moving through the air… It feels kind of serene in a way. It’s always so cool, she just knows how to execute it.

RES: You can see people thinking in Resident Evil: Retribution

DK: Yeah, she’s thinking down the line – look at this person, what’s he going to do, how am I going to react.

RES: What do you think about his use of slow motion?

DK: It’s kind of a cliché since The Matrix (1999) but I find it pretty effective. It exaggerates, or brings out those qualities more. And I really enjoy seeing whoever that stunt-person is doing her flip three times through the air. You want to savor that moment. I can accept it as part of the conventions now.

RES: At least of the new conventions, it adds clarity to movement rather than muddying it. What about that opening scene, of the action scene rendered in slow reverse motion. It’s gorgeous, although it seems like Anderson and his crew are just fucking around.

DK: Was it in the last film? No it wasn’t.

RES: It’s a continuation, picking up where Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) left off. I don’t know what the point of it was, but I certainly enjoyed it.

DK: I also appreciated the recap at the beginning, because at this point, after five of them, I forgot exactly how it all got started.

RES: Although it’s not really a series where you have to know the mythology to enjoy it. Another thing I love are those architectural blueprint shots, which shows you where all of the characters are. Anderson is obsessed with letting you know where you are.

DK: He also does that in Event Horizon (1997). It’s important to know your position in space for a coal miner… I wonder if those are the same matrixes they used to model the CGI. Well, the Moscow stuff, I guess that was real location footage.

RES: Yeah, there was a second unit in Moscow

DK: The White House didn’t look all too real though…

RES: I’m sure they tried to get permission to shoot at the White House.

DK: Yeah, they called them up. “-I’m the producer for Resident Evil Part Five, we’d like to stage a zombie holocaust. –We’ll get back to you.”

RES: It’s interesting that they shot real locations and in the movie they made them into virtual places. Usually that works in the reverse direction. What are your pantheon Paul W.S. Anderson films?

DK: They’re all pretty good. He keeps getting better. Retribution is the smoothest and most satisfying. It does not feel monotonously fast. And it’s really tight. Every scene flows. And that’s exactly what Joss Whedon can’t seem to do. “Alright, that number’s over. We have two to three minutes of sarcastic banter between thinly sketched characters before it’s time for the next number to start.”

RES: This feels like the ideal Paul W.S. Anderson movie, plucking from everything he’s done before…

DK: You think it will convince people he’s got talent? [laughs]

RES: If one person is converted, we’ve succeeded.

DK: They don’t have press screenings for his films.

RES: And that’s not going to change.

DK: It’s not like that audience is going to respond, “hey, this got a great review in the Times! Let’s go see Resident Evil 5!” It’s funny how people get that label of being schlock directors. I don’t know what he did to deserve that.

RES: It’s just received wisdom. His name has become shorthand for schlock.

DK: Yeah, but is he Uwe Boll or something?

RES: It’s the subject matter.

DK: But Christopher Nolan became an international star directing comic book movies.

RES: Yeah, but Anderson does video game adaptations, there is a difference. Comic books have risen in cultural capital the last couple of decades. Not so for video games. Roger Ebert says video games are not art, so Paul W.S. Anderson is out. He’s out. People always forget how Hawks and Hitchcock were regarded as vulgar entertainers in their day.

DK: It seems like that lesson never gets learned. Each generation of critics blows it in their own way.

RES: Not that I’m saying Paul W.S. Anderson should be compared to Hitchcock…

DK: Well, he’s at least Far Side of Paradise at this point. [laughs] Maybe he’s Gordon Douglas. Anderson is not able to make the number of films Douglas was – Douglas could make five movies in a year, and Anderson makes one every two years, and he’s incredibly prolific for today. He has a little studio system set up now. He has a star, a franchise…

RES: It’s one of the great director-actress duos of our time…

DK: Absolutely!

RES: Len Wiseman and Kate Beckinsale – that’s the B-team.

DK: C-team. That’s bad because they bring out the worst in each other. She’s a fun light comedienne but terrible in action movies. I don’t know what Wiseman is good for actually [laughs].

RES: Any final thoughts?

DK: Well, it’s just such a pleasurable, kinetic experience to be moved through that. You don’t feel assaulted, irritated and beat up by a movie. It’s a movie that respects your intelligence, and has put some thought into how it’s going to work. It’s not one damn thing hitting you in the face after another. That’s just stimulation, lights flashing, sound going off, CGI crap falling on top of everything. If you get people hopped up and stimulated then maybe they’ll think it’s entertainment, but it’s not. I’m a grumpy old man.

RES: Justifiably so. What does that make me then?

DK: Well, I was a grumpy young man too.

DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 3): INMATE AT THE ASYLUM, AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR RICHARD SCHENKMAN

May 15, 2012

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This is the third and final post in  DTV ACTION ITEMS, a three-part series on direct-to-video action movies. Click here for Part 1, an interview with Outlaw Vern, and here for Part 2, a profile of actor Stone Cold Steve Austin.

The Asylum is the most disreputable studio in that most disreputable of markets: direct-to-video. They made their name cranking out cheaply made “mockbusters”, thinly veiled ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters starring Z-list celebrities, many of which air in constant rotation on the SyFy channel. Last month Universal Studios sued them for copyright infringement on The Asylum’s Battleship take-off, American Battleship, starring Mario Van Peebles and Carl Weathers. Despite a hilariously cocky press release defending their film (” Looking for a scapegoat, or more publicity, for its pending box-office disaster, the executives at Universal filed this lawsuit in fear of a repeat of the box office flop, John Carter of Mars. The Universal action is wholly without merit and we will vigorously defend their claims in Court. Nonetheless, we appreciate the publicity.”), they changed the title to American Warships, which will be released on video May 22nd.

They are a crew of brilliantly amoral hucksters pranking Hollywood for fun and profit — a commendable goal for sure, but are the movies worth watching? When I spoke to Outlaw Vern two weeks back, he didn’t think so, nothing that “I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way.” One of their upcoming releases may indicate an uptick in quality, for Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (out on DVD/Blu on May 29th) is a taut, resourceful piece of survival horror, completely lacking the forced campiness of most of The Asylum product. First-time Asylum director Richard Schenkman is an industry veteran who has made everything from indie comedies (The Pompatus of Love) to sci-fi (The Man From Earth), and his experience pays off. The pace is snappy, the action well-staged, and lead actor Bill Oberst is gruffly engaging as Honest Abe. I’d be surprised if its Hollywood counterpart, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is as energetically entertaining. I spoke with Mr. Schenkman about his path into moviemaking, his opinion of The Asylum, and his experience shooting Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

How did you get into the movie business?

All I ever wanted to do was make movies. From the time I was a very small child. So while there were bumps and detours along the road, and while unfortunately when I was young it was much harder to break into independent film than it is today, that was the only direction I’ve ever traveled.

Who were your idols growing up?

When I was a little kid, Jerry Lewis. I guess the first book of filmmaking I ever read was his book The Total Filmmaker. That was when I really began to understand the difference between writing, directing, producing and cinematography. Because when I was very little I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer. When I started reading American Cinematographer magazine and Jerry Lewis’ book, I began to understand what everybody did, and realized what I wanted to do was write and direct. I didn’t want to be a cinematographer; there was too much math involved. So like a lot of people I tried to make little films, I did films with GI Joes and clay, and tried to get friends involved to make live action films. In those days it was so much harder, because you had to shoot on film, it was expensive and you had to send it to the lab, and when it came back you had to cut it with a blade and splice it with glue. It was much more complex and difficult. I have a daughter in fifth grade and she has friends, peers, making films. Eleven, twelve-year-olds. If I was growing up today my whole life would have been different. I would have been making films from the time I was ten, eleven years old.

Was your first paying job working on Playboy documentaries?

No, I started out at MTV. That was my first real job. I was very lucky. I was at MTV when it first started, so I got to have an enormous amount of creative input.

Is that where you learned how to be creative on a budget?

Yes. That was absolutely how I learned it. I’d get an idea on Monday, and I’d write the script and get it approved on Tuesday. I’d go produce the audio for it on Wednesday, the video on Thursday, and it would air Friday night. It was fantastic. The pace was crazy and the hours were long, but it was very very exciting.

How did you transition into filmmaking from there?

I took a bunch of money that I’d made and did a 35mm short, and came to Los Angeles. And said, “OK, great, this is going to get me an agent”. But nobody told me back then that there was no point in going out there with a short until you had written a feature script. I thought I would find work as a director but it didn’t work like that, and it still doesn’t. But it’s much easier to find all that out now. So I went back New York with my tail between my legs, having spent all my money on the short, and wondered what to do next. And that’s when the phone rang. An old executive from MTV had come to Los Angeles to become the new president of the Playboy Entertainment Division. So he brought me out. And again, it was, for a time, a really exciting opportunity. For I was both an executive, the in-house head of production, and a working writer/producer/director. I was able to hire a lot of people to create material, but I was able to jump out there and make stuff myself. It was like being a kid in a candy store.

You had more money to work with there, right?

I did, yes. And, for a time, I had extraordinary autonomy. I was given a pile of money, not a lot, about $400,000. And this money I was given that was just supposed to go towards interstitials for the channel, and I was able to stretch that money so far, that I made full-length shows. More and more the production came under my purview. A lot of short-form stuff. I tried to explain to them how inexpensively they could be making feature films, and own that segment of the market. You know, the softcore, very sexy movies. I was trying to make the point that if we improve the quality of them, made them ourselves, with real actors, working with real scripts, we could really expand the genre – making real movies. Every year for a few years they would put it into the budget, and at the last minute pull it back out. The year after I left they started doing it, and had a huge success with it the first few years.

Were you interested in genre films growing up?

Not particularly. I’ve always loved every kind of movie, as long as it was fairly smart or entertaining. A lot of horror movies are stupid. Too many horror movies, they think it’s enough to scare people, that they don’t really have to make sense, and not have anybody you can identify with. I suppose that’s why I was never much of a genre fan. I’m definitely not one of these guys who grew up seeing every zombie movie and Nightmare movie. I’ve seen lots of them, and the classics are great movies, like The Exorcist. But I’ve never gone for cheap jumps and scares, that always bugs me. To me, Alien is scary.

So the power of suggestion, not having to show everything…

Yes, but also just legitimately frightening you, the way Hitchcock would. Not just go, quiet, quiet, quiet, BOO! I don’t think that’s very clever.

So what appealed to you about Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?

The historical mash-up aspect of it. Definitely. I saw it was an opportunity to do a bunch of research and figure out fun and clever ways of working this fictional story into real history. To me that was the fun of the project. How do we insert this story into what we all know to be true? And so my first idea, when I was initially told about the assignment, was the Gettysburg Address. When we think about Abraham Lincoln what do we think about? Holding the nation together, freeing the slaves, and the Gettysburg Address. I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if this zombie adventure tied into the creation and delivery of the Gettysburg Address? That became the spine of the story.

How did you end up getting the job, since you are not a genre guy?

My friend Karl Hirsch is a writer/director/editor who’s done a lot of work for The Asylum over the years, although I don’t think he’s ever done a feature. He’s done some editing of their movies and trailers. They have a relationship, and they came to him, kind of out of the blue, and said, “we’re going to do a direct-to-video title called Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. Are you interested?” He was debating whether he wanted to do it or not, because he had other projects, and he knew it would be very, very challenging. He and I were having breakfast, and he told me about it. So I told him, “Oh, man you have to! That sounds like so much fun. How can you turn that down?” He said, “because there’s not going to be any money, there’s not going to be any time”. And I said, “It’s making a movie!” So I said, “I’ll help you write it. I’ve been trying to find a way to get my foot in the door with The Asylum anyway, because they’re making so many movies, and it would just really be a gas to work on.” And that’s what happened. I pitched him the Gettysburg Address idea, and we beat it out together, along with his wife Lauren, and submitted it. Asylum said, “Yes, we’ll do this.”

And when we were working on a treatment, an eight page, eight act treatment, when midway through that Karl got offered a huge documentary project that he could not turn down. And I said I’d really love to stay on, at least as the writer. Everybody seemed fine with that. David Latt at The Asylum had seen a couple of what he thought were my more indie films, like The Pompatus of Love, although I consider it more of a comedy. So I was offered to stay on as a writer, and pretty early on I said, “I’d love to direct this.” At one point, about a half-hour left before the thing needed to start shooting, they said, “well, there’s going to be no money, no time, nothing that you’re used to having, but if you want to direct it, you can.” I said, “I’m up for the challenge.” In some good news, the line producer Devin Ward figured out how to put the movie together to shoot in Savannah, Georgia, and he got us Fort Pulaski to shoot at. That decision to shoot on location makes the movie exist on any level in terms of quality. If we had to shoot in Los Angeles it really would have been crap.

How much time did you have to shoot?

We had 15 days on location and then a further half-day on a green screen stage. Looking back, how we did it, I have no idea.

Did you have any qualms about making the film for The Asylum, considering their reputation?

The short answer is no, because they make movies. Lots of people talk about making movies, but The Asylum actually makes movies. Here’s the thing from the outside you might not know about The Asylum. Everybody there is really nice, really smart, really hard working, and really loves movies. And everybody there is busting their ass to do as good a job as they can. The people in special effects are there like 20 hours a day trying to make these effects look beautiful. And by the way, some of the effects you have seen in the past in some Asylum movies, and thought, “by God that’s terrible”, a lot of those were done out of house, by people they took a chance with who didn’t deliver, and then they were out of time and out of money. It’s a hard working dedicated bunch of people, all of whom, I think, would like their movies to be better. And I honestly would not be surprised if starting with the movies that are coming out in April-June, if you see a bit of improvement. There is a development executive there, Micho Rutare, who has been there about a year – he’s been pushing very hard for the scripts to be better. As I said, on the technical side, everyone there is challenging themselves to improve the technical quality. I would be surprised if Nazis at the Center of the Earth and Abe Lincoln do not start a trend towards movies that are at least trying to be better.

You were approaching this as a real movie…

I was not encouraged in any way to make a quote unquote Asylum movie. In fact, the way Micho described it was, write an $80 million movie, and then figure out how to do it with nothing. In other words, I was specifically encouraged not to write for the budget. And I was told flat out, “we do not need camp, we do not need intentionally made camp anyway”. Which I had no interest in regardless.

There are no ex-celebrities in the film, right?

No. Basically, we did the movie locally. They are all local actors, except for Bill Oberst, who came from L.A.  Everybody else was local, or if they weren’t local, they got themselves to Savannah somehow, and worked as locals.

I think that would make people take it more seriously. When you see a face you recognize before, it automatically becomes something else. With unknown actors, you become more involved in the story.

There’s that argument. There have always been directors who prefer to work with unknowns or even non-professionals for just that reason. I don’t know where I stand on it. To me, you hire the best actor you can. Frankly, in terms of marketing the film there’s something to be said for getting a known actor. The film’s being produced by its distributor. So they know exactly where they’re selling it, how they’re selling it, and to whom they’re selling it. And they don’t really expect to do much in terms of cable on this title. They do their business in DVD/VOD and foreign sales, and so the movie’s made to fit the place in the market, and within its budget. And the budget is dictated by what their expectations are of how it’s going to sell.

How did the shoot go? Were the budget constraints frustrating?

It’s so funny about a movie shoot. It’s like giving birth to a baby. You end up forgetting just how much it hurt. But if you didn’t forget, you’d never have another baby. If every woman only had one baby, our population would be decimated. So, there’s some mechanism that causes you to forget just how unpleasant it was. And I have to say a couple of months out, I’m beginning to forget how unpleasant it was [laughs]. But it was a very, very difficult shoot. Everybody worked really hard, the community of Savannah really rose up to try and help us get this movie made. People did us all kinds of favors, and the production value we achieved using these local locations is extraordinary. The movie looks like it cost far more than it did. And a lot of that is simply the locations. Having said that, we had a very, very small crew, and almost nonexistent budgets for props, special effects. So you’re asking creative people to pull off miracles every single day. You’re saying to them, “there’s no time to prep, and no money to buy or rent anything, but we need a cool switchblade folding scythe for Lincoln that is going to look mean on screen but not actually hurt anybody. Could you have that by tomorrow?”

The special effects and makeup guys must have worked like crazy…

That’s the thing, it was a zombie movie with no special effects department. Yes, we had a makeup team who worked ridiculously hard, and we had a bunch of day players come in on heavy zombie days. But the casting director and her daughter were on set most days, helping do makeup. And I don’t think they were paid for that. They did it to support the film, and we had a lot of that. Just to support local production in Savannah, to support the project. A lot of people really liked the script, and even though it was, quote unquote, just a zombie movie, I think people really got into the story, and the respect with which we were treating history. I know that sounds crazy to say, but we really were trying to be respectful of history, and the historical characters that were in the film.

Did you at any point look of the promotional images from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?

No. I specifically avoided it until I was done. I never read the book. If there are any similarities at all, they’re an unfortunate accident. I honestly know nothing about it. I haven’t seen the full trailer, but I did see the teaser trailer after we wrapped.

I would guess your movie is more historically accurate than that’s going to be.

That would be great! That would be hysterical. Obviously in my mind, it would be nothing short of wonderful if my movie was better than that movie in any aspect at all. If there’s one thing, like “Their Lincoln is better”, or “it’s more historically accurate”, or “It makes a little more sense”, or anything. It was a huge book by a successful writer, a huge budget movie with extraordinarily talented and successful people making it, so if there’s any way my movie compares to theirs favorably, it would be just great. But I don’t expect to come out on the winning side of most comparisons.

How was working with the actors?

They were lovely. Starting with Bill Oberst – he really took it seriously. He was the kind of guy showing up already knowing Lincoln’s speeches by heart. And he actually played Lincoln before on stage. He’s a very dedicated actor, one of the most dedicated I’ve met. He’s also very talented in terms of acting ability and technical skills. He would show up, and let’s say through some scheduling snafu he had prepared for a different scene. Even if he had a page and a half speech to do, he would go off for 5-10 minutes and come back and have the thing memorized. I’ve never seen anything like it.  A true professional and a great leader for the rest of the crew. We had a lot of young actors, a lot of inexperienced actors, and while everyone was super-thrilled to be there, it was great to have someone as experienced and serious as Bill heading up the team.

Especially because you didn’t have time for many takes, right?

That’s kind of a myth, the whole, “we do one take and move on” thing, like Eastwood. In my experience, the time does not go into takes, to do another take is five minutes. That’s not where you lose your time. You lose time getting a shot set-up and trying to load equipment into a huge fort that doesn’t have an elevator, you can’t bring vehicles into, and is open for business for vistors at the same time. That’s where the time goes.

So you had to work around the schedule of the fort?

Yes. It was crazy! Visitors came and went, cannons went off, and we had to shoot around that. We had to get twenty people into makeup with a two-person crew, that was challenging. But the only time I’m forced to say, “we’ve got to move on”, is, for example, you’re against a really hard deadline like lunch, or wrap. If you’re five minutes over, you’re into penalties, and that sort of thing. But having said all that, we didn’t do a lot of takes. I try to rehearse, so…

You had rehearsal time?

Um….no. We did not have rehearsal time before production time. But while the crew was lighting I tend to rehearse with the actors as much as I can.

You worked well with your DP?

We had a terrific camera department. We had two cameras going all the time, and we did that with a camera crew of three, basically. Which is half as many as you’d usually have on a two camera shoot. We had a DP, and two camera assistants. Everybody operated, even I operated sometimes, and we had two cameras almost every shot. It’s the only way we could have ever finished the movie.

While stressful, are you satisfied with how it turned out?

I am happy with how it turned out. Of course there are scenes I would have loved to shoot again. People who’ve seen it so far say it’s a very entertaining film. As retrospect becomes longer, the shoot grows less and less difficult and more and more fun in my mind. It’s always fun to make a movie, because there’s this constant sense of achievement. Every time you get a shot, and it looks good, or complete a scene, or wrap your day. Those are all measurable achievements.

Did you have to improvise a lot on the set?

Sometimes, yes. I try not to improvise utterly on the fly. If I have to improvise I try to do it a day in advance, so that I can write it out and give it to people.

Can you give an example of something you had to improv?

We had a walk and talk along the railroad tracks. We wanted to do it as a tracking shot beside the tracks. Then it occurred to me, can’t we could build some kind of a rig, and take the dolly and customize it so we can track on the railroad tracks? I mean, they’re here, they’re used to having giant things wheeled along them. A couple of our guys got together and dismantled the dolly and reassembled in such a way that it could roll on these railroad tracks. So we did the walk and talk. Then the camera operator was just goofing around, and showed me what it looked like if you rolled the thing pointed forward. He was running in front of it like it was a train coming towards him. Then we realized it could actually roll over a person. I had a scene that needed to be scrapped because we lacked a key prop, and I basically had a character who needed to die a coward’s death. It occurred to me that we could have him run away from a fight, run along the railroad tracks, not realize a train was coming, and get run over by it. And we could get the key shot from the POV of the train by using this rig. So we hurriedly got the guy in wardrobe, and we shot the last part of it.

Would you work with The Asylum again?

Oh yeah. In fact I’m hoping to roll right into another project with them.  I hope to work for them again very soon.

DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 1): AN INTERVIEW WITH OUTLAW VERN

May 1, 2012

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The summer movie season is obnoxiously approaching, with long-form toy commercial  The Avengers opening on Friday.  While estimable writer-director Joss Whedon is sure to provide a witty quip or two, this is still a 142 minute movie about a gang of men (and a token woman) who wear molded plastic underwear. This 3D “spectacular” will cost upwards of $20, so I submit that your movie dollar is better spent on the humble direct-to-video action movie. With no budget for CG, these cheap-o brawlers resort to showing actual humans moving in real spaces, often with jaw-dropping athleticism. And if not, they are over in 90 minutes or less.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be discussing DTV action movies, in the hopes of bringing more appreciative eyes to this last bastion of  the B-movie spirit. This week, I chat with Outlaw Vern about the general state of DTV movies today, from its studios to its stars. Vern has been a vocal (and very funny) supporter of the genre for years at Ain’t It Cool News and his own popular review site, sparking my own interest in them with his polemical call-to-arms in his write-up of The Marine 2““Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.” The more I watch, the more I agree with him.

The interview was conducted over e-mail. Vern writes in very slangy prose, so words like “websight” are not typos, but are his own invention. You can order his book on Steven Seagal, SEAGALOGY, here.

For some background, what year did you start reviewing movies? Could you talk about what led you to start up your site?

I started in ’99. Back then there was this thing on the internet called “newsgroups” which was sort of like bulletin boards, and I would write crappy little movie reviews on the one called rec.arts.movies.current-films. Some of the people there thought what I was writing was funny and sort of sarcastically suggested starting a websight, so I did. After doing it for a long time I got better.

Did you cover DTV movies right from the start, or was there a particular film (or actor) that made you pay closer attention to them?

It started because I had a friend who was hooking me up with screeners from a video store, these were VHS tapes that the studios sent out to promote upcoming movies. Since they were movies that hadn’t come out yet I would write about them and send it in to Ain’t It Cool News. Back then a lot of them were sequels to Wild ThingsCruel IntentionsThe Skulls, stuff like that. I also got some of the DTV Steven Seagal movies and I was really interested in him because of On Deadly Ground so I really took to those and that obsession led to me writing my book Seagalogy.

Unlike the majority of movie writers, you focus a lot on the way action scenes are shot. What do you think are the key ingredients to making a good action/fight sequence? Of those, what do you think DTV movies do particularly well?

There’s no one way to do an action scene but I’m very big on them having a clear sense of where the characters are standing and what they’re doing. That used to be a minimum standard of competence but now it’s kind of rare. A decade ago I was really bothered by fast edits starting with Armageddon, and then started worrying about bad framing after Gladiator, and of course since then you can usually assume that a theatrically released action movie is gonna have most of the scenes shot very close up with a handheld camera so you get confused and aren’t sure if anything cool happened or not. When the director actually makes an attempt to plan out the shots and clearly show people fighting it becomes a major promotional point, like in Hanna and Haywire.

For a long time actually the action was usually crappy in DTV movies. For example Seagal’s action scenes showed way less effort and craftsmanship than his earlier movies. Belly of the Beast and Urban Justice are two exceptions. But in recent years as most of the studio action movies have turned into shakycam bullshit with actors pretending to be fighters instead of the other way around, DTV became sort of the last refuge for American fight movies with the spirit of what we used to love in the ’80s.

Could you give a general DTV lay of the land for newcomers? Who are the major studios, directors and actors?

Millennium Films is mostly theatrical now (they did The Expendables and the Conan the Barbarian remake) but they were sort of the Cannon Films of the early 2000s, pumping out lots of the DTV movies starring Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes. Those guys, Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. are the primary marquee names doing DTV vehicles, but of course Wesley’s in jail now and Seagal has slowed down a little to do TV shows. For the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record. Most of his DTV movies, especially Damage, are way better than his one theatrical starring role, The Condemned.

WWE Studios (or “the prestigious WWE Studios” as I always call them) made The Condemned but I think they’ve become much more trustworthy in the DTV market. I really enjoyed The Marine 2starring the son of a wrestler I used to watch in the ’80s, and a quirky crime drama called Inside Out where the wrestler Triple-H is reunited with his Blade 3 co-star Parker Posey to play an ex-con who gets mixed up in his friend’s untaxed cigarette scam, but just wants to make pickles [this actually received a limited theatrical release last year -RES].

Years ago it seemed like no DTV directors left a mark on their movies unless it was a mark of suckiness. Now there are a bunch of directors I try to keep an eye on: Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 and 3NinjaSpecial ForcesUS Seals II, many others) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: RegenerationDragon Eyes) are the standouts, but I’m also interested in William Kaufman (The Hit ListSinners and Saints), Roel Reiné (Pistol Whipped, The Marine 2Death Race 2) and Jesse V. Johnson (The ButcherPit Fighter).

Where are most DTV productions shot? And do you know the general budget of most of these productions?

It seems like most of them shoot in Vancouver, but Avi Lerner, founder of Millennium, has a studio in Bulgaria, so a lot of them are shot there. There are a lot of New Orleans productions now too, because of tax incentives they have there. I don’t really know about budgets, but I just looked it up and IMDb estimates Universal Soldier: Regeneration at $14 million, less than a fourteenth what it cost to make Battleship.

What is your opinion of the “mockbusters” that the production company The Asylum  churns out? Most of them look like manufactured kitsch, but is there anything worthwhile or interesting there?

Not that I’ve seen. I mean, I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way, so I haven’t had the stomach to venture into that territory too much. People always ask me to review different ones but I’ve never had anyone claim to have found one that was watchable. Actually I thought about watching I Am Omega because it stars Mark Dacascos. That could still happen. My dream is that they’ll start doing rip-offs of Oscar winners. I’d like to see The King’s Peach and The Artiste. The ‘e’ in Artiste would be really small on the cover.

Scott Adkins is a favorite of yours (and now mine). How would you describe his work to someone who hasn’t seen him before? Do you think he’ll ever break through in Hollywood?

Adkins is an agile, high-kicking screen martial artist kind of like a modern Van Damme, but he’s English so he’s more eloquent in our language. But actually I like him best in the Undisputed movies playing a stoic Russian criminal. He has more of a background in straight acting than most action stars, having been on British TV shows like EastEndersand Mile High, but it’s his fighting that has earned him a following. He also kind of looks like Ryan Reynolds, so he was able to stunt double Reynolds in Wolverine.

I don’t know, part of me feels like he’s so talented and likable and has such an impressive body of work that he’s destined to blow up on the big screen, but part of me thinks there’s just not a theatrical market for martial artist stars like that anymore. Jason Statham is probably the closest thing we have to that in the western world.

Of the aging DTV action stars (Seagal, Lundgren, Van Damme and the like), who is making the most interesting stuff? Any recent recommendations?

I think Van Damme is in an interesting place right now, because he turned down The Expendables to do Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which totally paid off because US:R is a way better movie and now he gets a bigger role as the lead villain in Expendables 2. He’s really great in US:R, playing his zombie super soldier character as a burnt out, tragic character yearning for humanity but not able to reach it. Lundgren is also great in that (he’s only in a few scenes because he didn’t turn down Expendables). He’s doing some experimenting now too, he did an indie comedy, he’s got one coming out where he plays a villain, and he’s working with 3 of the directors I listed above, plus doing some directing of his own.

The best recent movie I’ve seen with any of those guys is Dragon Eyes, but Van Damme really just has a glorified cameo as the mentor to Cung Le.

I know you’re an admirer of Isaac Florentine. What makes him in particular such an effective DTV director?

He’s a martial artist himself and also grew up a movie nerd obsessed with Sergio Leone. But my theory is – and I’m not sure anybody else subscribes to this one – that it comes from directing Power Rangers. He did like 60 episodes as a choreographer and directed a lot of those so it just gave him years of practice quickly shooting down and dirty martial arts sequences with very little money. He loves movement and believes in visual storytelling, so he has a very energetic but clear visual style. And at this point he’s done more than a dozen movies but still puts his all into it so he’s gotten really great at taking guys like Van Damme, Lundgren or Michael Jai White and putting them in a story that really emphasizes their badass qualities. Florentine is also the guy that turned Adkins into a DTV icon, first stealing the show in Special Forces, then as the villain in Undisputed 2, who became the protagonist in Undisputed 3.

I think your favorite DTV production is Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Could you say a few words about why DTV doubters should see it?

That movie is the surprise masterpiece I’ve been hoping for ever since I started watching those screeners. It grabs you right from the beginning with this intense kidnapping, car chase and shootout. The cameras are right in the middle of the action but used very intentionally, not shaking all over the place. It takes these silly but fun sci-fi concepts from the original Roland Emmerich movie but treats them much more seriously. The music and sound design seem very influenced by Alien and The Terminator, it creates a really strong, grim atmosphere. The super soldiers are played mostly by MMA fighters so the fight scenes are really brutal. But there’s also something poetic about it, like the scene where Lundgren’s villain has been cloned after being chopped up in the original movie and he knows to fight Van Damme but can’t remember why. It’s this awesome sci-fi action movie but also says something about war taking away our humanity.

From the few I’ve seen, the DTV action movies seem to have a higher level of craft than Hollywood blockbusters because of their low budgets, forcing them to use more analog techniques (like using longer takes with real fighting instead of fx and rapid cutting). Do you think that is true, or am I exaggerating?

It seems that way because you’ve seen the very best ones. I gotta be honest, there’s a lot more crap than there is Undisputed. But I think that’s definitely true in best case scenarios like Hyams and Florentine. I compare them to the standout directors who were taking advantage of the drive-in market to do interesting stuff in the old days.

The standards keep going up for DTV and at the same time the standards for action scenes in theatrical releases are pretty much in the toilet. It’s like you’re not even expected to point the camera at the action anymore. Did you see Warrior? Really good sports drama, but the fighting tournament is literally shot to look like you’re in the audience with shitty seats where you can’t see anything. The fights are choreographed by J.J. Perry, but his work is showcased way better in DTV movies like Undisputed IIThe Tournament and The Shepherd: Border Patrol.

What upcoming DTV movies are you most looking forward to?

I can’t say Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning because that’s hopefully gonna be in theaters. I have some hopes for this one called The Package because it’s Jesse V. Johnson directing Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren, plus lesser known white guy martial artists Darren Shalavi and Jerry Trimble are in the cast. And I’m hoping Maximum Conviction will be fun because it teams Austin with Seagal. It’s all about team-ups right now.

If you had to select five DTV productions to convince someone to take DTV movies seriously, what would they be?

1. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

2. Blood and Bone (2009): Michael Jai White is a badass motherfucker who gets out of prison, rents a room and enters an underground fighting circuit on a mysterious mission of revenge. He’s every bit as badass as he was in Black Dynamite but in a non-parody context. This reminds me of the best Van Damme movies like Lionheart, mixed with a little blaxploitation swagger. It has an excellent villain, a surprising use of a Wang Chung song, and great little touches like the legendary Bob Wall cameoing as his character from Enter the Dragon.

3. Undisputed II (2006) and III (2010): – I didn’t really like the original Undisputed even though it’s directed by Walter Hill and has a great performance by one of my favorites, Wesley Snipes. But in the sequels Isaac Florentine replaced the boxing with MMA and came up with the brilliant idea of turning the villain George “Iceman” Chambers (originally Ving Rhames, now Michael Jai White) into the protagonist to fight the Russian prison champ Boyka (Scott Adkins). Then in part 3 Boyka has to rebuild himself after defeat and face the great Chilean fighter Marko Zaror (Mandrill). Boyka is a convicted murderer but you find yourself rooting for him to win and escape.

4. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996): I want to honor the rare good-DTV-sequel. Most are half-assed rejected-TV-pilot-esque rehashings with different characters. Darkman III is one of the rare DTV sequels that seems to fit the medium: it’s certainly not worthy of a theatrical release – I mean, Liam Neeson is replaced with Arnold Vosloo from Hard Target and The Mummy – but gives us an idea of some of the fun we might’ve had if more people had paid to see Darkman like we did. It’s from the writers of Face/Off, and they come up with all kinds of clever and funny things to happen to the vigilante master of disguise. My favorite is when he disguises himself as the villain (Jeff Fahey) to break into his house and walks into his surprise birthday party. Later he impersonates the villain again for the good cause of attending his daughter’s school play.

runners up: From Dusk Till Dawn II: Texas Blood Money and Hostel Part III, both directed by Scott Spiegel.

5. Belly of the Beast (2003): I gotta include a Steven Seagal picture on here. Urban Justice is his most hardcore DTV action movie, Out of Reach is maybe his funniest (he plays an animal rescuer/swordsman who has to rescue his orphan pen pal from white slavers) but I think Belly of the Beast is most representative of the DTV yin and yang: quality action mixed with charmingly sloppy filmmaking lunacy that would never make it to theaters. Helmed by the great Ching Siu-Tung (director of A Chinese Ghost Story, choreographer of Hero and Shaolin Soccer), it brings Seagal to Thailand to save his kidnapped daughter from Islamic extremists, a corrupt general, a transvestite and a sorcerer. There’s a great shootout and a fight in a market where a guy slips on a tomato and lands on a meat cleaver.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVE KEHR

April 5, 2011

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It’s taken as long as the caravan journey in The Big Trail, but we finally have a collection of film criticism from Dave Kehr, who currently writes the essential DVD and Blu-Ray column at the NY Times.  When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press) gathers his work from his period at the Chicago Reader, from 1974 – 1986. For years I’ve consulted his capsule reviews to guide my viewing habits, still available at the Reader website, but his long-form pieces have long been out of circulation. So this is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. His prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs.

I was able to sit down with Mr. Kehr to talk about some of his favorite directors, as well as those not given much critical attention. So we range from Raoul Walsh to Godard and from Eastwood to Paul W.S. Anderson. Something for everyone! And it should be noted that the University of Chicago Press is doing an incredible job, releasing not just Kehr’s book, but also the most recent writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson.

RES:  It’s easy to get caught up in Raoul Walsh’s energy, but it’s hard to pin down his specific style. Could you break it down?

DK:  Well, he goes through a few different periods. If you’ve seen Regeneration, from 1915, the longest feature that survives, he’s really doing Griffith.  There are standard set-ups, moving into close-ups for moments of emotional intensity or alienation. And then we don’t have anything until 1922, something called Kindred of the Dust which is at the Eastman House. In that one he’s already doing wider angles, longer takes, and more staging of action in depth. He’s doing a lot less cutting. He’s moved in a different direction than Griffith at that point. That becomes very obvious in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and What Price Glory(1926). He becomes more about bodies moving through space and less about shots following shots.

The Big Trail (1930) is a huge breakthrough for him. The effect of working in what was essentially CinemaScope in 1930 makes him reconsider everything. Suddenly he’s got this equipment that will give him dead sharp focus over a range of like 5 miles. And he sees the possibilities instantly, which is what I find so fascinating. It has these incredible deep focus compositions, so you can see every aspect of a shot unfolding in the same image. There is a shot of the wagons being lowered down the mountains in the background, and people approaching in the foreground. Conceptually it’s incredible; multiple planes, multiple focal points. A lot of the stuff people think Welles and Tati invented is already pretty much there in The Big Trail. The other thing he finds there is this sense of background motion which becomes really important for him. He’ll have static figures having a conversation in the foreground, but have a lot of crossing in the background, with isolated pockets of action. You get the feeling these extras could star in their own movie. He develops that in a lot of different ways  in the early ‘30s.

RES: How did he carry the lessons of framing for widescreen back to Academy ratio after The Big Trail?

DK: Well, then he starts working on the deep focus. He works with James Wong Howe on Yellow Ticket (1931) which is a really fascinating film, and I wish Fox would make a print of it. They don’t quite have lenses that are fast enough, and they don’t have enough light, but conceptually they are 100% in Gregg Toland, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles land. They’ve got it all figured out. There are shots in that movie that could have come straight out of Citizen Kane.

RES: Did Andre Bazin ever write anything about Walsh?

DK: Not to my knowledge. These films were pretty hard to see. The Fox stuff dropped out of circulation after the studio fire.  I don’t think people were looking at these movies.

RES: When Walsh began making widescreen films again later in his career, do you see any shift in style from The Big Trail?

DK: It’s like he picks up where he left off. Even before that, when he makes his 3D movie, Gun Fury (1953). He had been making movies in 3D all the time. The irony being that he was blind in one eye. He doesn’t do anything differently in Gun Fury than the way he was staging stuff in The Lawless Breed which comes out the same year. He has that natural sense of depth. He identified cues of perspective and how to nestle characters within a space. It works brilliantly in 3D when you see it projected.

RES: How would you characterize his handling of actors?

DK: Well he likes a very distinctive kind of performer. He didn’t do a lot with Douglas Fairbanks, but he was at the same studio, Triangle, for five years. But when he finally does get to direct him there’s an immediate chemistry: this is the man in action. This is the Walsh hero. He carries this over in different forms. With Fairbanks it’s all light and jolly and weightless. It’s the same with James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck. There’s always something that kicks these people into action, and it can be a conventional goal, or it could be this animal sense of, “I have to keep moving.” And in the case of Sailor’s Luck I think it’s sex. The sexual attraction between those two characters is staggering. Obviously a year later you couldn’t do anything remotely like it. They just have to get together.

Then you get to Errol Flynn, who kind of picks up the Fairbanks stuff, but it’s a little darker, a little nuttier. He’s kind of angry and violent. In Flynn’s first few films he’s juvenile in an irresponsible way, taking unnecessary chances that’ll get him in trouble. And as he works with Walsh, from They Died With Their Boots On (1941) through Operation Burma (1945), that character grows up in really interesting ways.

Flynn achieves manhood for Walsh’s heroes in Operation Burma, and then you get those baroque variations from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Most famously, White Heat (1949), where the character is plainly psychotic. He’s no longer just dangerous, he’s fucking crazy. That performance is so gutsy. It seems so modern to this day. Chewing on a chicken leg as he walks over to the trunk to shoot the guy….

RES: Even in something like The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney is a little insane.

DK: It’s got that Walsh energy, but it’s more coiled and manic than Flynn, and certainly more than Victor McGlaglen. There’s always the sense that something is pushing these guys forward. It could be something as benign as that spirit of adventure of Fairbanks, or as psychotic as what Cagney does.

RES:  I heard you will be writing a new regular column for Film Comment starting a few issues from now. Will it be about directors like Walsh, who have not been written about much?

DK: Yes. For some reason research on American directors stopped with Andrew Sarris. Probably something to do with the fact that theory came swooping in around that same time, and we all had to pretend there was no such thing as authors for a few years. In the meantime directors are dying left and right and prints are dropping out of circulation. The older I get the more amazed I am by the size of the classical Hollywood cinema, how many interesting people there were, and how many films. It’s gigantic. I don’t think any writer has gotten their head around the enormity of this thing.

RES: Have you selected some filmmakers you’ll discuss?

DK: Two of the people I was planning on writing about… One was a guy who worked at Republic in the 30s and 40s named John H. Auer. And another guy named William Nigh who started at Warners in the teens, worked at MGM and ended up on Poverty Row in the 30s and 40s. He had an interesting late career. I thought I would call the column “The Auer is Nigh”, but they didn’t like it…[laughs]

RES: Are there any unpretentious action directors working today worth paying attention to?

DK:  Yeah. Paul W.S. Anderson I think is pretty talented. I always enjoy his films. I’m not sure he’s any kind of thematic auteur, but he certainly knows how to shoot action. And David Twohy, who did Pitch Black (2000) and A Perfect Getaway (2009). This is a sad example. The guy has directed four movies in the last eleven years . How many films would Raoul Walsh have made in that time? You just don’t have the chance to get good anymore.

RES: I’m happy you named Paul W.S. Anderson, who I get a lot of shit for liking. He’s always attracted to constrained spaces…

DK: Yeah, he’s kind of Langian. He loves these underground chambers. In every movie there’s people penetrating a gigantic spaceship [Event Horizon (1997)] or the bowels of the corporate headquarters in the Resident Evil movies. His first film just came out on DVD, Shopping, which is an art film compared to what came later.

RES: You devote a whole section to Jean-Luc Godard in your book, who at that time (the early-to-mid 80s) was re-engaging with, and questioning, narrative. You wrote that he was “concerned with breaking through a media poisoned world to something clear, clean and transcendent.” How would you contrast that with his recent work, which seems like a return to more experimental formal structures, interested in layering images and ideas rather than “breaking through”?

DK: Passion (1982) is probably my favorite of the late Godards. That one almost seems like a Dreyer film, completely spiritual. It’s all about the transcendent, how do we get out of here, what’s in the next room if there is one. After that he falls back into the argumentative mode.

Film Socialism (2010), which is in three parts, seems to correspond to three stages of his career. You get the opening sequence, which is the big beautiful and lyrical piece, of the stunning images he was doing in the 80s and 90s. Then you get the up close and personal family interaction stuff that he was doing in Numero deux (1975) and the films from the 70s that nobody sees anymore. And then it ends up with an essay-ish section which is very much like the Histoire(s) du Cinema. So he seems to be conscious of playing with his different manners. A retrospective film.

RES: Another of your pieces that struck me was your review of Sudden Impact (1983), and Eastwood in that period. I assume he was not taken seriously as a director at that time. Could you talk about Eastwood’s place in relationship to the New Hollywood, whom you often seem to be reacting against?

DK:  I was somewhat alienated from the whole Bob Rafelson, Easy Rider thing. I don’t think I would write those things as negatively now as I did then. It was a polemical moment.  I liked Clint because of his association with Don Siegel. I thought his first film showed an awful lot of personal investment, and particularly in the way he was looking at himself as an object. It’s a theme that continues, consistently imagining his own disappearance, his own death, obsessively. Sudden Impact is the best of the Dirty Harrys because it gives him such a powerful, other form, a Dirty Harriet, which it was often called at the time. He more than meets his match. Directed masculine energy meets undirected female anger.

RES:  The way Eastwood pares away any affect in his performances, I think you even called it “Bressonian” in your review, really stands out in Firefox (1982) in which he barely emotes, like one of Bresson’s models.

DK: I know, and that’s a great example of him imagining his own disappearance. Because at the end of the movie he flies off away from the camera into this little dot.

RES: Another interesting aspect is how, as a secret agent in Firefox, he’s supposed to be a good actor, but he keeps screwing up. He’s portraying himself as a bad actor.

DK:  Which is what I loved about Pink Cadillac (1989). That was a movie I got a lot of crap for liking, but this is a movie about why Clint likes acting, and why he’s not very good at it.

RES: His movies are so rich because of how he interrogates his own persona…

DK: Yeah, once he stops doing that, his work really dries up for me. His last great film was Gran Torino (2008), which is the summation of that theme, a film I found emotionally devastating. Literally handing over the keys to the new generation. Again he’s imagining his own death and irrelevance, but this time something comes after that.

RES: Could you talk a bit more about his work post-Gran Torino? It seems the craft is still there but not the same level of personal involvement.

DK: I don’t find them very personal at all. It seems like he’s taking whatever hot, Oscar-ish script of the moment is. He’s getting people like Brian Grazer to make his movies, and they’re prestige oriented stuff.

RES: What about the WWII diptych, which I felt was very strong.

DK: Yeah, the first one I thought was good, the second was really good. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) he was aiming a little too hard for social significance – it didn’t feel like an Eastwood film. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is just the opposite .

RES: You felt the same about Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010)…

DK: Invictus I just couldn’t get into at all and Hereafter I thought was actually bad. Very disappointing. We’ll see about J. Edgar. Sounds like another Oscar candidate.

RES: Another director you devote two pieces to is Blake Edwards…

DK: Edwards was important because he was a full-fledged studio auteur who was still working at a peak level when I was writing those pieces. Just the perfect example of someone was could make very personal films in a very commercial context.

RES: Would you put him with Eastwood as the last of that breed?

DK: I suppose. I don’t want to sound all apocalyptic or anything. Joe Dante is still in there plugging. And John Carpenter…he’s a real independent. He released through studios but made maybe one studio produced film,The Thing (1982) through Universal. He has that studio ethic without being a studio guy. He fought to keep his independence so he could make movies as if he were working for an old studio.

RES: I wonder when we’ll get to see Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)…

DK: It’s played all over Europe. And Monte Hellman’s got a new picture with no distribution [UPDATE: Monterey Media has acquired Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE]. And Joe’s last picture [The Hole (2010)] never got distribution.

RES: Was The Hole’s fate decided because studios booked all the 3D screens?

DK: He explained it to me. The problem selling it was it wasn’t scary enough for teenagers and it was too scary for twelve year olds. A tweener.

RES: Continuing with more recent work, you wrote that great piece on The Cable Guy (1996) recently, so could you expand your thoughts on Apatow’s output? He has his champions.

DK: He does, but I don’t think he’s that innovative. He’s never done anything as far out as The Cable Guy again. He wrote a lot of it and didn’t put his name on it, but he learned his lesson on that one. Keep it friendly, keep it nice.

RES: Funny People (2009) did seem very personal…

DK: It did, but not in such great ways. It kind of gets preachy on you. I didn’t like how he was layering the characters where the people at the center were these three dimensional, psychologically complex types, but the further you got from them the more grotesque and cheap sitcom-y they got. When they finally meet the husband, he’s this total cartoon. He’s no real competition, there’s no real drama between those two guys. The guy’s a joke. It was an easy way out of that dramatic situation. I generally find the Farrelly’s more interesting, although they kind of ran out of steam. They’re not as funny as they used to be.

RES: I’m a big Stuck on You (2003) partisan.

DK: Yeah, I like that. And Kingpin (1996), I just love it.

RES: Is is their anarchic qualities you admire?

DK: That’s where the real energy is now. Comedy and horror is where you can break the rules. You don’t have people breathing down your neck because executives don’t care about these genre things, they don’t watch them half the time.

RES: That’s why I’m a big fan of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, especially Step Brothers (2008), which becomes incredibly anarchic.

DK: Yeah, I have to see that. Ferrell, I can’t quite figure him out. There’s something a little condescending in what he does. It’s not mean spirited, he just likes playing stupid people. He lets you know he’s smarter than they are all the time. Something about that bothers me. You can see him working down, where you could never see Stan Laurel working down.

RES: Step Brothers takes that as its subject. They are literally overgrown children, these men in their 40s, so I think it takes on that criticism. By the end of the film the narrative totally dissipates, into a series of non-sequitur gags. The Other Guys (2010) is more conventional…

DK: I saw that. It was a buddy cop movie that kept telling you, “this is a parody of a buddy cop movie.” But it was doing all the things a buddy cop movie does.

RES: It got caught up in the plot for some reason…

DK: Isn’t this a great parody?  No, it’s just like everything else.

RES: There was a flare-up recently in your blog’s lively comments section recently, this time about Tony Scott, who also has his critical defenders.

DK: I guess so. I was kind of amazed to discover that all of the Lisandro Alonso fans also like Tony Scott. I can’t reconcile this. Looks like the same guy to me who made Top Gun (1986). Just run and gun, shoot, shoot shoot, and maybe we can massage this into something that makes sense but we’ll worry about it later.

RES: So you didn’t find any coherent visual scheme.

DK:  I couldn’t find a pattern in what Pat Graham was talking about in Unstoppable (2010), supposedly mirrored, up and down panning shots. If they’re there, I totally missed it. One little trick for getting a quick sense of a director’s visual style is to fast forward through the movie.

RES: Do you do that often?

DK: Not often, but once in a while. So you’re not distracted by the trivialities of plot and character and acting [laughs]. But a quick fast-forward through and you get a good sense of the visual vocabulary. I just ran Unstoppable, the ten minute version, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly organized about it. He takes these really banal screenplays and embroiders them with these big effects, which is what everybody does. He’s a little more creative technically, he’s willing to go the extra mile of bringing in the helicopter.

RES: I admit I’ve enjoyed his last few movies. I’d say he’s the main exponent of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity”. He’s able to take this style and pare it down where it moves and still makes sense, even if there is no overarching visual structure.

DK: But there are those push-ins at the end of close-ups, for no effect. It doesn’t mean anything. He uses it here but doesn’t use it there. It’s what someone called “refreshing the screen”. It’s just to keep something happening to keep kids from getting bored. Stimulating the optic nerves to keep people interested.

RES: I can’t argue that. But I also think he’s an efficient storyteller.

DK: That’s the kind of filmmaking I value. I just don’t get him, or “the working class metaphysics.”

RES: That quote from Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (read here) really got under your skin.

DK: That phrase stuck in my craw. It’s too easy. What’s working class about that movie? It’s not about the Hawksian pleasures of doing your job or the Walshian pleasures of community. It’s your typical Hollywood heroes acting in complete isolation. The thematic is tired old therapy stuff. By stopping this train we’ll become better husbands and fathers.

RES: Let’s talk about your blog, and the great community you’ve created there.

DK: I don’t think I created anything. It’s just there aren’t that many places where you can discuss these issues without having the same tired argument over and over again, “is the director the author of the film?” I’m too old, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

RES: The discussions get intense sometimes. Do you think it recreates the polemical atmosphere of the Kael-Sarris period of your writing, of “When Movies Mattered”?

DK: I hope so. The thing about Tony Scott was a pretty good example of that. I really enjoyed that, it got tense.

RES: In the blog you mentioned that I Saw the Devil (2010) is the natural endpoint of the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino. Could you elaborate on that?

DK: It’s just hard to imagine things going any further. It’s the old gag where the cop is as crazy as the criminal, but in this case the competition is about who can cause the other greater pain. The pain is registered with such force and originality, it really shook me up. He’s not nearly the craftsman that Park Chan-wook is, but his color sense is magnificent in that great opening shot of the face created in the rear view mirror.  You don’t know whose point of view it is until a half-hour into the movie. It has that old-fashioned craftsmanship that cares about composition and texture and color. You see it in the Korean films coming out now, which I guess is inspired by Park Chan-wook. It’s not happening in many other places now.

RES: Is there anywhere else?

DK: Well, we seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world, with a few pockets of it remaining. Johnnie To mainly, the couple guys in Korea, David Fincher, David Twohy, and I’m sure a few others but not that many. Now it’s all about acting and framing the performance. Most mise-en-scene is just finding some way to separate the actor from the background. And that’s all they’re thinking about, how to isolate this face. I was sitting through Sucker Punch (2011) last week, and I thought, what am I doing here? I could have watched three Allan Dwan films in the time it took me to watch it!

PHYSICAL EVIDENCE: WHITE MATERIAL (2009)

November 16, 2010

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White Material opens with a shot of dogs crossing a headlight-lit road, followed by flashlights illuminating the well-appointed interior of an abandoned bourgeois home. The sequence ends with the image of an African revolutionary leader named The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) lying dead, his face etched out in circles of light. It is a film about coming out of the darkness into this rather cursed light – what is revealed is dissolution and chaos. Claire Denis’ allusive and texturally beautiful film opens this Friday from IFC Films, and will appear on video-on-demand services starting November 24th. I participated in a round table interview with Denis and star Isabelle Huppert last week in NYC, and their insights will be liberally sprinkled in with my own below.

Huppert stars as Maria Vial, the sinewy-strong manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation (it was shot in Cameroon). A seductive voice crackles over the radio about armed unrest and the iron hand with which the government plans to put it down. Maria’s workers start fleeing en masse, and soon her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) urges her departure as well. Her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), the owner of the plantation, is a ghost-like presence, sickly and waiting for death (the fate of a white man’s burden), while her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shows signs of mental breakdown. Everything is falling apart, and yet Maria is obsessively intent on completing the year’s harvest. She exists in a state of willful ignorance, unable to accept the destruction of the only home she’s known.

Huppert and Denis emphasize the split nature of Maria’s personality. Together with DP Yves Cane (long time collaborator Agnes Godard was tending to her sick mother at the time), Denis frames Maria up close with a handheld camera, emphasizing her isolation. And yet within these spare framings, Huppert exudes an indomitable, intractable kind of fortitude. Her denial of reality doesn’t unmoor her from it, but makes her dig deeper inside of it. From the outside,  the perspective of the French soldiers in helicopters urging her to leave, she is fragile and soon to be victimized. But in the cocoon of close framing she is a warrior, her pink cotton dress, as Denis described it, a kind of armor. Denis again: “I remember a scene from the coffee plantation. There was this young man, young worker in the plantation, took his moto, raised his arms and said, ‘every morning when I go on my motorcycle I feel  free and strong’. I really liked that. She [Maria] was seen by the French soldier as a little fragile victim they came to rescue. A minute after riding the motorbike she starts feeling, ‘I will make it, I will manage to finish the harvest. I will not be a victim’.”

Huppert:  “As Claire was writing the script with Marie [author and first time screenwriter Marie N’Diaye], I remember she was giving me clues, she was something like a bionic woman, a super woman. By this exaggeration she gave me a clue of what she wanted. Not psychological, but a physical approach to the character. I remember when she said that to me. It really opened a whole world. A totally physical approach, and nothing else. So I started to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and when I got to Cameroon I started to learn how to ride the tractor. So the character was defined by resistance to the natural elements, and the whole situation against her.”

As self-destructive as her behavior is, Maria is still imbued with a kind of faded grandeur. She is fully committed to the colonial project even to the point of death. She identifies completely with the land, raking in the coffee cherries with the workers and focused only on keeping the farm open. It is a phenomenonally physical performance by Huppert, even standing still she seems like a natural part of the landscape, a stylish scarecrow.

Her principles are paternalistic and outmoded, but at least she has them. The violence that threatens the edge of every frame seems to have no principles except destruction. The rebels are terribly young, child soldiers drafted into a war they didn’t choose. The government is run by cynical profiteers, organizing militias for their own protection but caring little that the rest of the country will burn. In the midst of this chaos, Maria is a stabilizing presence. She is insane, but steady. This steadiness of belief is why Denis continually compares her visually to The Boxer, the mythical rebel leader, and the only other character who seems to believe in his own cause. The Boxer is also given intimate single close-ups like Maria, while the rest of the film uses medium to long shots set on a tripod.

His story is also one of dissolution. He is wounded, his life slowly draining out of him while the rebellion he once led spirals out of control. Like Marie with her family, the rebel forces are no longer under his command. And yet he remains impossibly serene, his face an imperturbable mask. Their destinies are intertwined through these visual, thematic and structural rhymes. Structural, because the opening shot of his death immediately precedes the introduction of Maria, riding a bus to nowhere, before it moves back in time to establish what led her to get that empty look on her face (She meets The Boxer briefly in this middle section). This flashback structure establishes the entropic direction of the narrative – we know things will fall apart, but not how. White Material was shot before 35 Shots of Rum, but was released a year later, not just due to the vagaries of distribution, but also because she spent so much time establishing the structure. In the interview she said the script was written in chronological order, but that the bus scene got stuck in her mind, because she wanted, “To have Maria appear in the broad daylight, already lost, already too late.” The opening shot of the Boxer was necessary because she wanted,  “Dark night preparing her to walk into daylight. I cannot explain why.”

MARTIAL FINE ARTISTS: NINJA II – SHADOW OF A TEAR

December 31, 2013

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

The first Ninja (2009) was a broad comic book-style action movie, with a corporate death cult threatening the safety of NYC. Casey Bowman (Adkins) is the orphan raised in a dojo who tears down their international conspiracies with the help of fellow student Namiko (Mika Hijii). With its kitschy hooded villains and unconvincing Bulgaria-for-NYC locations, it’s more Adam West than Christian Bale, superhero-wise. If you are a cheese aficionado, it is a profound experience, but even if not, there are some miraculous fight sequences, including a closed-quarters slobberknocker in a subway car (which Jason Statham borrowed for Safe). For the sequel, they wanted to make “an old-school martial arts film”, as Adkins put it. This time around Bowman has married Namiko, and they run the Japanese dojo in which he was raised. A brutal attack destroys this idyll, and Bowman snaps, violently tracking down the drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata), whom he suspects of the crime. It’s a simple narrative line to hang a series of wildly inventive fight sequences on.

The revenge plot and use of ninjitsu is reminiscent of the Sho Kosugi ninja trilogy from the 1980s (Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) and Ninja III: The Domination (’84)). All three were produced by Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ Cannon Films, and it was Golan that gave Florentine his first directing job (Desert Kickboxer  (’92)). Florentine even casts Sho Kosugi’s son Kane in a pivotal role as Casey’s enigmatic friend and rival Nakabara. Adkins comes out of a kickboxing background, so his version of a ninja mixes in showy kick acrobatics with the Japanese styles. His influences also differ from Florentine. While the Israeli-born director emerged out of endearingly slapdash Cannon Films canon, Adkins grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and Van Damme before turning to martial arts himself. A real student of the form, he provided mentioned is fight film favorites to be Enter the Dragon, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master 2 and Armor of God. Their interests complement each other, as Florentine learned how to stretch a buck while Adkins studied how to make bodies look fluid on-screen.

In one interesting experiment they attempt a one-take fight scene, set at a rival Japanese dojo. Casey is there snooping out information on two local thugs, and takes out all five men in an unbroken forty second shot. It is not as ambitious as those of Tony Jaa in The Protector or Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy, but it serves a different purpose. This is not a showstopper but a scene-setter, displaying Casey’s easily snappable temper and setting up the array of fighting styles to come. He takes them out with brawling punches, soaring spin kicks, and a submission arm-bar. Adkins, who admitted to being exhausted after shooting seven takes of this, is a stylistic chameleon, with the looks and power of a brute force brawler but with the ability to execute nimble air strikes. With a handheld camera Florentine and his longtime DP Ross W. Clarkson float around Adkins, a member of the bout rather than an observer. The camera privileges the fighter, but also engages in its own choreography, dancing with the brawlers. Adkins mentioned this camera choreography as party of his fight film philosophy:

A lot of people, the way they get it wrong is they document the action, as if making a documentary. From that side, that side, and that side, with a long lens or whatever. That’s not the way to do it. You need to get the camera in, with the action performers, moving in unison with them, and the camera should be as choreographed as the performers are. You’re part of the action, not watching it from afar. That’s what good action filmmaking is all about.

Their showstopper in Ninja 2 is a barroom brawl that tips its cap to Drunken Master and Kickboxer. Casey is drinking himself into oblivion when a loudmouth drunk splashes him with booze. Needing little provocation, he proceeds to decimate ever loser in the joint. Ninja II uses inebriated fighting to darker comedic ends than the Jackie Chan and Van Damme films. The Chan and JCVD personas have something of the beatific innocent about them, their moves very clearly for show – a performance. Adkins is a more brooding type, his most fully formed character the anti-heroic convict Boyka in the Undisputed series, who fights not to please, but as an instinctual survival mechanism. The same is true of Casey, whose only remaining identity is tied to the dojo and the study of ninjitsu (although the film shows only a smidgen of that form). In the bar he completely loses his self control, revealing himself to be nothing other than a very nimble town lush. But he does it with style. Florentine keeps the camera at a distance, occasionally isolating the more spectacular feats with cut-ins and slow motion. But every blow is visible, as his regular editor Irit Raz (Florentine always works with the same crew) cuts the sequence percussively, on every meaty kick or knife-wielding snik.

There are countless other memorable battles here, which is remarkable considering the restraints of time, money, and Adkins’ aching back, which he seriously injured on the set. But despite all the limitations of DTV productions, Florentine and Adkins are relentlessly pursuing, and have nearly perfected, a pure form of the fight film, returning the genre to its roots as simply capturing fine-tuned bodies in collision-course motion. Hopefully we get to see their next distillation in 2014, with the highly anticipated Undisputed IV tentatively slated for release.