Keeping a Film Diary

film-diary

A lot of people would believe this to be a mad waste of time. Think again. I like to think of my film diary as a personal journey, and here’s why. Films are full of life – be it life re-imagined and projected onto a screen. People have been writing heartfelt criticism on the subject for over a century, good and bad. For some people, films can change their life, for others it can be something to chortle at. Either way you look at it, film provokes a response, a very human being response. But, why should we bother write about these responses?

They can instigate thoughts that may have a deep and desirable effect on our day-to-day lives. I am not just speaking for cinephiles when I say this, take a look in the news and you’ll see all sorts of arguments over the power of visual content – movies and games in particular. I notoriously remember the case with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy being blamed for the Virginia Tech massacre.[1] There is also the argument that movies desensitize us: “Now the act of violence with a gun or a knife is the norm and we in the entertainment industry are partly responsible in making the presence of weapons such as knives almost an acceptable commonplace”, Sir Richard Attenborough.[2] On the contrary, I believe that seeing violence and other matters in the movies can kindle us and make us more aware and susceptible to these themes. Though, you can see the argument overlapping. It befalls on the individual at the end of the day.

I clearly digress. Film can be a very personal journey, and regardless of how many movies you watch, writing about them can reflect your current demeanor and outlook on life. This outlook will inevitably change over time and that is an interesting arc to discover. Use film as a means to reflect on your current state of mind. Writing your thoughts about a character in a movie is equivalent to writing about your thoughts on the man opposite the street or the girl living next door. The medium of film is irrelevant if you reflect on the characters – humans with various obstacles, behaviors and emotions. Of course, some people may only write notes on the aesthetic/artistic aspects of a film, but by digging into the characters minds we can locate a magical reflection on our world. This is the filmmaker’s greatest task, to give a character that magical human touch. Next time you watch a film, try watching it with this task in mind, and the characters will become an extension of yourself.

This may be biased toward my love for dramas, but even movies with aliens and monsters should give off a similar aura. This then becomes dependent on how we perceive various genres of film. I am beginning to think that film is just a cycle of contradicting gestures – much like life.

But, lets not forget how important and powerful film aesthetics can be. You may discover a hidden desire for a certain look and feel that a film gives you – it could be the aura of a period drama, or more specifically, the unnerving sensation that stark lighting in film noir gives you.

Besides film analysis, the reflective experience of writing a diary can be liberating and great for your film knowledge. If you keep track of the films you watch you will be able to tell your friend when he or she asks what you want to watch: “Yes, I have seen that”, rather than “Not sure, lets try it” and then half way through you release you have seen it and know how it will end! When you write down a film noting its title, crew and cast details etc. you will not easily forget it, unless it is terrible. Though unfortunately, in many cases, it is the terrible films that are the most memorable! Much like, “why is it the negative reviews that stick?” Mark Kermode.[3]

Writing about film can also give you a better understanding of what genre or style of film you like best and why. As you begin to note differences in characters, story arcs, designs, locations, cinematography etc. it will become apparent. This post is becoming too much like a film school lesson (and I don’t like school), so let me wrap things up.

What I am trying to get at is that if you are not consciously aware of how you are being affected when you watch a film and wish to reflect and understand it a bit more, then write a diary! You will be surprised about your unique insight – everyone has one when it comes to rummaging through film criticism. For those who are already film lovers, then you probably already have a film diary, so keep filling it!

Get to know Mark Travis

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Mark Travis is a consultant and expert on the art and craft of film directing. He is also a very friendly guy who one can easily get in touch with to ask for advice etc. After reading his internationally acclaimed book Directing Feature Films, I felt obliged to get in touch with Mark and express my enthusiasm for his work. Mark got back to me 10 minutes later with his thanks and a mark of confidence and good luck.

So, if you are starting out – like myself – or a crafted expert, then either way you should head over to Michael Wiese Productions and check out his brilliant book. In this blog post I want to note a few effective and basic methods that Mark mentions in his book and shed some light.

Firstly, Mark talks in great depth about character and how one needs to dig deep below the surface in order to reveal the truth. It comes down to genuine human emotions and behavior when looking for that believable performance, or “magical” performance as Mark likes to say. In the book, Mark suggests a few fundamental ways to achieve this as well as some new and alternative approaches. I found the emotional graphs and obstacle charts that Mark draws particularly insightful.

emotional-graphs

Above, I have included the emotional graphs of two characters in a short film I am directing at the moment. The emotional graph allows me to see where the characters reactions/shifts in emotion are taking place from good to bad. I have labeled the graph by the chronology of scenes in which they appear. From this I can get a true representation of the characters arc and how they should respond by changes in their behavior. Of course, these graphs are highly susceptible to the interpretation of a character and the various other obstacles they may be facing through staging and their environment etc. But, from a director’s point of view, it appears invaluable to guiding the actor through various obstacles and hidden anxieties. Once you understand this, you can break the ‘rules’ and shift the characters obstacles slightly to get a different emotion and performance that works best.

Another area that draws similar results is recognizing the characters ‘Gap’ – the difference between their expectations versus the reality. How a character responds to this can determine their true nature – it could be aggressively, progressively, confidently, arrogantly, wisely, sadly etc. etc. Mark explains this in greater depth in his book and also provides examples of graphs you can draw to configure your characters ‘Gap’.

Moving on from character analysis, Mark takes the reader from assembling the creative team to the final mix in postproduction. He always evaluates the areas from an approach of the director and gives valuable examples of all the hidden tasks he and his fellow filmmakers have undergone in the past. It is hard to find an angle that Mark doesn’t cover. Though, I am sure this opinion of mine will change when/if I get the opportunity to direct a feature a film. I will end up writing to Mark saying, “You didn’t warn me of this, or that, or this! Etc.” Though he does say something along the lines of “be ready for the unexpected!”

One of my favourite things in the book about production (I hope I don’t get in trouble for attempting to quote the book too much!) is that one should think of the camera as a character and the director should play that character. This character will eventually become the audience. Having a reason behind every angle or move you make this character (the camera) do is essential; the reason should link nicely back into the arc of your story. A cinematographer knows all this and depending on your specific collaboration he may push your reasoning or he may have a stack of his own. I think a great cinematographer should bring his or her own ideas and challenge yours respectively, but inevitably encourage whatever you – the director – decide to do.

(You – the reader – probably already realise this, but the idea of this blog post – and the rest – is not for me to teach you, rather I just to want share my opinions (small or tall, fresh or naive) and hopefully you will put a comment in the box below!)

On the other front, is working with actors and Mark has plenty of answers (Also, I promise this post isn’t a Michael Weise ad). I will let you discover these notes for yourself, but it goes without saying that ‘result direction’ is also frowned upon here. However, I must say, Mark does provide a noteworthy reason for times when it can be necessary and valuable to throw commands at your actors.  One thing that he does hammer home is the priority of character intention and function over anything else, including the written word. This intention and function is established via character objectives (intention) and behaviors (function). So, by looking at this, to change the outcome of a character-driven scene, simply change their objectives and behaviors – it is pretty simple really.

So, there were a few things that stood out to me from the book; there are 395 pages more of it!

Find Mark on his website here.

I won’t attach a link to buy the book because as I mentioned  – this is writing from the heart, not the bank!

Film of the Fortnight #3

Dallas-Buyers-Club-Images

Regular readers will know that I usually do my film of the week each week. However, I have decided it would be more efficient and effective (for various reasons) to do this by fortnight instead. Scarily, we are already into the 7th week of 2014 and life continues to feel like it is running ahead of time. One of the most frustrating things about a lack of time, is not being able to write or watch enough movies to satisfy my senses. Writing is a great way to express ourselves and let loose a little, some like to scream, others like to fight and some like to write. And, watching movies is just a great way to reflect on everything and anything, and, in effect, catch up or even be transported ahead of time.

But, I clearly digress. Awards season! It is now full flow with the Oscars only a few weeks away, and the BAFTA’s this Sunday. Don’t miss out. Though, unfortunately, half the films nominated are only just becoming available here in the UK. The joys. One of those films, Dallas Buyers Club, I had the pleasure of seeing last week. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film and I am still not exactly sure what I think of it, but what I am certain is that Matthew McConaughey’s performance deserves great respect and admiration. Any doubts of him as a truly impressive actor should be thrown off the prescription; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take home an Oscar alongside his Golden Globe for best actor in a drama.

And a drama it surely is, with McConaughey’s character Ron Woodruff prancing about like a scandal before being diagnosed with “full blown” AIDS. His journey to overcome this diagnosis is what makes this film so remarkable; his character fights with enormous passion and determination to turn his life around and the lives of thousands of others. Woodruff is a skinny, tiresome and dopey character, McConaughey shed 38 pounds and it shows, one is reminded of Christian Bale’s frightening bodily transition in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. A stand of ovation for the man.

Jean-Marc Vallée directs the picture following the success off the back of his critically acclaimed Café de Flore in 2012 and The Young Victoria in 2009. Vallée works odysseys of magical proportions, his characters are mystical in their ways yet frighteningly grounded with realistic human behaviour. He is a director to definitely watch out for, and no doubt he has plenty more breath-taking dramas waiting to elope the screen.

Watch the trailer below:

12 Years a Slave – Welcome to Southern Hell

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MOVIE REVIEW

12 Years a Slave
Plan B, New Regency Pictures, et al. US.
133 Min
2.35:1
UK Release: 10th January 2014

DIR Steve McQueen
PROD Anthony Katagas, Brad Pitt
SCR John Ridley, Solomon Northup
DP Sean Bobbitt
CAST Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Quvenzhané Wallis, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Marcus Lyle Brown, Brad Pitt

After what feels like twelve hundred lashings, we are left transfixed at the horrors on the screen as a poor young lady has been innocently victimized by the sharp cane of a mean, powerful and perverted land owner. This is just one of the many harrowing scenes in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave – a fruitful and climatic dramatization of Solomon Northup’s novel of the same name.

This is a hard film to call, it is no doubt a grand dramatization in the life of a slave, but is it overtly so? Or does the film focus too much on this epic translation of Solomon’s life to the big screen that it forgets all the other impediments such a landmark should forge? When Brad Pitt enters the scene as a kind-hearted Canadian speaking out against slavery, it seems clearly convenient and perhaps too messianic. Yet, McQueen doesn’t send us half-hearted back to 1841 and rigorously achieves what a film must: let us experience the characters journey. So, despite occasional setback and concern surrounding my observations, this film is ultimately awe-inspiring and you’d have to be a fool not to feel its power and raw emotion.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (playing Solomon) is the eyes and soul of this film. It is a grandiose performance of tears, adoration, forfeiture and being. Often, McQueen will leave his camera resting on Solomon’s shoulder or waiting just around the corner. We are summoned to live and breath with this character, feel his pain and stare straight into his forlorn soul. A primary example of McQueen escalating tension in this sense is when Solomon is hanged but left dangling with his toes barely touching the ground. There he waits for help, as most ignore him. It is excruciating, we watch Solomon balance himself, as for not would mean death. But, the camera is not always lingering, sometimes it is swirling in circles, to contradict McQueen’s earlier method of creating tension. In this case, it is tension via action, rather than emotion. In this scene, Solomon is forced to whip Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) – a fellow lady slave – it is a pinical scene and one that hammers home the diseased social order of their sick master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

McQueen’s two previous films have also addressed intense subject matter – In Hunger we experience the hunger strike against the British occupation in Northern Island, and in Shame, a man crippled by sex addiction. The insane acts that human beings carry out on one another is the limelight of McQueen’s work and one shouldn’t be surprised if he picks out subject matter related to Hitler, Stalin or Xianzhong as his next piece of work!

A masterpiece no doubt.

5/5 stars

Watch the trailer below:

Sex, Drugs & Amsterdam

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When a 40 year-old lady sits butt naked in a brightly lit, red tinted window gazing seductively into your eyes and you stand there with a camera, one doesn’t feel entirely comfortable. This is Amsterdam.

Last weekend, after 12 hours on a coach watching Disney films and 1 hour getting blown away by Channel winds, I got the chance to wonder Amsterdam and visit some intriguing and interesting, but very strange places. Let’s begin lightly by mentioning the anal section in the sex museum, or how about the flame-grilled, cactus shaped condoms in the condomerie? Is this a culture bespoken to the majestically sexual hedonisms of tourists, or is this just the Dutch way of being candid, gratified and Dutch? It’s probably me being boorish.

I read all about bondage fetishes and the rise of mainstream bondage in the 70s with Madonna’s book Sex and various other sex manuals. But, I was startled when a barbarous and dirty model chained to a cave leaped out at me from the shadows. Museums are full of all sorts of fruitful exchanges in Amsterdam.

Next up was the hash museum. This museum was genuinely thought provoking. Long lists of names hung on the walls, from Bob Marley to Walter Benjamin – everyone who was somebody and smoked marijuana. My question was, what is the intention of this museum: converting tourists to becoming pro marijuana? Does this mean the others want us to have dirty sex and use 12-inch metal penises? (Excuse me). The hash museum certainly liberates the fact that the drug shouldn’t be scrutinized as much as it is… agreed. But, this is an argument for a different day.

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It may not seem like it, but not everything is sex and drugs in Amsterdam. That is, everything except Heineken beer. It is like the Greggs of the North; every street corner has a Heineken trademark. Though, applause to the Heineken experience, it was a rather impressive array of beer tasting, posing for selfies and indulging in a so-called immersive brewing experience of being psychically shaken around.

I’ll stop being so critical about Amsterdam’s assortment and cultural traditions because, in fact, the place has plenty more to offer, if the copious exploitations of the above nature don’t overtly distract you. Anne Frank’s house was a remarkable endeavor; the house felt like it was built on stilts and would tumble at any minute, if one didn’t fall down the nail-bitingly steep stairs first. The thing that surprised me most was the fact that the house was actually rather large, the phenomena is that Anne and her family were laid bare in a space too small to fit a bed and sink. However, the reality of the situation was inevitably beyond imagining and the immersive experience of walking the narrow corridors is not to be missed.

Finally, we had time to visit the Van Gogh museum, the highlight of the trip… until we ask, “We can’t find the sunflower painting, it’s here in the brochure, could you direct us?” “Sorry Sir that was moved to London two weeks ago.” What? The Van Gogh museum is only the pride and joy of the artist’s great work and Amsterdam’s great city, and they get rid off his most famous painting? It would intrigue me to here the figures associated with such a deal.

It was a plentiful weekend, and I haven’t begun on the after dark activities, another time… or perhaps not. Anyway, here is a video I made from the trip. A trip is never complete without some visual language to remember it by. Watch it below and thanks for reading, even if it was a struggle.

The Limelight Index: Ewan Stewart – Writer/Director

GETTING ON STILL

I was recently lucky enough to see Ewan Stewart’s brilliant new short film Getting On (above) at Leeds Film Festival, it has since gone on to screen at a number of festivals and win the British Council Award for Best UK Short at London Shorts. I got in touch with the Scottish filmmaker to discuss his unique short and how he got started out in the industry.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

My parents are both writers, so I grew up around a lot stories and that basic fascination that I think we all have for film and cinema kind of took over. I was also very interested in the portrayal of Scottish culture in cinema. When I was growing up, there weren’t many films coming out of Scotland at first, but then films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and the work of Ken Loach, really gave me hope that it would be possible to become a filmmaker where I was from.

Are there any particular filmmakers who inspire you?

I’m inspired by a wide range of filmmakers, but I grew up watching a lot of independent American cinema from the 70s and 80s. As well as the films of the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, Malick, Lynch and Friedkin. I was also interested in European cinema, particularly French New Wave.

Am I right in thinking that you came into the film industry from TV?

Yes, I used to direct commercials before I started working in drama. Before this, I worked in various roles in TV from assistant director to editor.

Do you think that TV is a good route into the film industry?

It can be. The thing about filmmaking is that there are so many different ways that you can get into it. TV helped me to understand who does what and how everything works. I also gained a lot of contacts from the TV industry, so when I started making my own films I got help and support from people I’d worked with.

How did the idea come about for your latest award-winning short film ‘Getting On’?

It was actually based on a short story that my dad wrote. It was essentially a one-page character monologue and was based on a neighbour from his childhood. I felt that the story and voice of the character were very unique and that’s what attracted me to it.

Do you view the story as controversial in any way?

No, I don’t think it would divide audiences in any way. It’s not really about an issue as such; it’s more of a character piece about loneliness and isolation. My aim for the film was to make something that was both funny and poignant with a strong visual element to it.

What made you decide to shoot in monochrome?  

I felt it definitely fitted the tone and the mundanity of the character’s everyday life and I also love black and white from an aesthetic point of view. Practically, as we shot quite quickly on a DSLR, I wanted to make sure the cinematography was consistent in the final film.

You have a lot of tight-angled and awkward shots that I imagine the use of a DSLR made more achievable. Are you pro DSLR in this sense? 

The camera we used was definitely right for this particular film and I’m all for the DSLR cameras in general as they make filmmaking much more accessible. Some people say that the DSLR look is over used, but they do have a good quality to them, depending on how you use them. I wanted the very shallow depth of field look and the DSLR was great for this.

For those who haven’t seen your film, what other festivals is it screening at?

It will be showing at the Glasgow Shorts Film Festival this month and hopefully a few more in the coming months.

What is your take with online distribution?

I’m all for putting short films online, but I’d always do this after the film has finished its festival run. Obviously you can reach a larger audience online, which is a definite advantage.

Will you put ‘Getting On’ online?

I’m currently in the process of attaching the film to a distributor, so it’s unlikely that it will appear online any time soon I’m afraid.

Do you have any other projects in the works, a feature maybe?

I’m just finishing off another short at the moment for release later this year. After this, I have a couple of feature scripts I’m working on.

Will you be taking these projects online for funding?

I probably won’t be going down this route just yet as I’m hoping to get funding from more traditional methods through production companies. But getting funding is always tough, so it’s not something I would rule out.

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?

You really just have to keep making films and keep learning from your mistakes. It all helps. Before I started directing commercials and drama, I made a lot of corporate videos, which I’d shoot myself. Corporates are often dull in terms of subject matter, but everything you do helps to train your eye and give you a greater technical understanding of cameras and editing. They also can give you a chance to be creative whilst earning money at the same time.

Finally, what makes a great short film for you?

I always like to see fresh ideas or a new way of looking at a subject, whether stylistically or through a unique voice. However, I’d say that story is always the most important thing, whether in a short or feature.

Personally, I like short films with humour – there is often a tendency for filmmakers starting out to go for a rather bleak subject matter. With humour, you can instantly get a sense of whether an audience likes your work or not, purely through their reaction and this is definitely an attraction for me.

Watch the trailer for Getting On via the link below.

LSFF Trailer