Friday, January 31, 2020

Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla

I was watching a short documentary on Ray Harryhausen last night and it mentioned an interesting point that I'd never thought about before: that Harryhausen apparently didn't think much of the Godzilla series because it relied too much on men in rubber suits gracelessly crushing model cities.

Thinking about it, this might be why I never had as much affection for the Godzilla movies as I did for the creations of Harryhausen. Perhaps they just lack the handcrafted artistry and intricate design that I admire about Harryhausen's films. I was always struck by the design and personalities of Harryhausen's characters, which are certainly memorable and stick in your imagination years after seeing the films.

Looking back on it, a lot of my earliest efforts at making amateur movies were in the sci-fi/fantasy vein. I even tried making a couple of stop-motion animated films using model dinosaurs. I don't know why I abandoned it after some point, other than possibly feeling like I'd outgrown the genre, and certainly the issue of resources quickly became an issue in terms of being able to do anything like this on a zero-budget. I think even as a kid I recognized how hopelessly out of proportion my ambitions were in relation to what I could realistically achieve when it came to attempting this kind of movie, which is probably why I moved on from it early on.

I remember seeing a documentary about Baltimore horror filmmaker Don Dohler. He said that he always wanted to make romantic comedies, but that he recognized very quickly that they were almost impossible to do on a low budget. Audiences expect glamorous Hollywood stars, locations, etc. when it comes to romantic comedy. He said that horror films were the types of movies that could best be done on a low budget with local actors.

It makes sense. You have to adjust your expectations to what an audience will accept if you want to have any hope of connecting with them.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Fantasy & Monster Movies

It's funny, I'm not sure just why this should be the case, but recently I've found myself drawn back to a genre of film that I haven't really watched that much since I was a kid -- fantasy and monster movies. I don't know if it's just a general affection or nostalgia for many of these films that's coming back to me or what, but I've had more of a desire to see these again after a long time.

I came across one called Captain Sindbad, from 1963. Guy Williams from Disney's Zorro stars, and it's directed by Byron Haskin. I have vague memories of watching this one on TV with my grandfather. It was on one of the cable TV stations, TNT, I believe -- it must have been around 1992 or 93. This isn't even one of the better examples of the genre -- not in the same league as the Ray Harryhausen movies, but still plenty of color, lavish sets, and fun special effects. I just remember loving those kinds of fantasy films so much then that I'd enjoy any of them I could find.

Watching these again, I think I may have grossly underestimated how influential they were on my dream of making movies of my own.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 6: Final Cut

I put the finishing touches on Unknown Number tonight. I've spent the past week and a half editing the film, doing color correction, final sound mixing, etc. I wanted to get a cut together for submission to a film festival, and in the process of revising what I'd already worked on, I realized I was much closer to being finished than I realized. Barring any significant issues that I become aware of after sharing the video with a few close, trusted friends, I'm prepared to say that this one is "in the can".

I'm very pleased with how this one turned out. One thing I became aware of in the post-production process was some of the little technical aspects that I could have smoothed out if I'd been able to work with professional-level gear. I'm not at all discouraged by it, though, and consider the results exceptionally good for a micro-budget short filmed with a consumer-level camcorder.

These are the things you have to do to make a DIY movie.

The funny thing is that for all of the post-production work involved in this one, the actual completion of the process feels almost anti-climactic, like it came together much easier than I'd originally anticipated. I should mention that I did more extensive post-production color correction on this one than I've done for any of my previous films.

I won't get into too many details about that process. It's tedious but necessary work to get the image to where you want it.

Assuming I don't make any further revisions, my next step will be to think about unveiling the film. I will certainly make it available online to view soon, but I may need to hold it back for just a while if I end up submitting to other festivals. I tend to avoid festivals for the most part these days, because the chances of getting are so slim, the costs to submit are so high, and frankly, more people will see your film on YouTube than they ever will at a festival. Still, it can be a nice way of bringing a little extra attention to your film before putting it out there.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 5: Directing Yourself

I often act in my own movies. This choice was not born purely out of necessity. When I first started making movies as a kid back in the mid-90s, I harbored a desire to act as well as writing and directing. Looking back on it, it's a good thing that I was drawn to acting as well, because for the types of movies I wanted to make, I needed actors, and among my friends, there really wasn't anyone else I could call in to help out (other than my siblings). So, I took on roles in my own little movies just so I could get them made.

Someone once asked me whether it was difficult to direct myself. At the time, I had just completed an independent, zero-budget feature-length comedy, The Professional, in which I starred. His question took me aback somewhat, because I'd never really given it any thought.

But, it's something I've become increasingly aware of as I've pushed myself to do better work each time with my new films. And Unknown Number really brought that home to me. Case in point: in the film, I wear a gray suit. When I arrived on set, I had to begin setting up equipment, moving stuff around, etc. And it occurred to me that I had to be extra careful not to get anything on the suit. Now obviously, if I weren't also acting in the film, this would not have been a consideration, as the actor could have just waited on set for everything to be ready, or held off on arriving at all until it was time to shoot.

As the director, however, I have to be the first one there, and I'm a firm believer that, even when -- especially when? -- working with your family and friends, you must never ask anyone to do anything that you aren't doing yourself. So if we have to move shelves or boxes around, or assemble tripods or lights, I am the first to do that. All of these tasks, which would normally be handled by a crew on a bigger-budget production, fall on me, and present additional tasks that I have to deal with above and beyond acting.

There's another, purely practical matter, about directing yourself. When you're in front of the camera, you really have to rely on your cinematographer to make sure everything still looks good in the frame. Sure, you can take a look at it before getting in to the shot. And if you're using a camcorder like mine, you can even ask the cameraman to flip the little LCD screen around so you can see what it looks like (although this is not the most reliable choice, since it's a small screen and you're likely already positioned at a bit of a distance from it).

You really can't be 100% sure until you play the footage back, and even then, the small viewing screen can be deceptive. There might be minor details that aren't easily visible at that size which only be apparent when you look at the footage in the editing room.

Obviously, some of these issues are larger than the question of acting in your own film, but they become amplified when you are worried about giving a performance in front of the camera as well as handling all of the behind-the-camera considerations.

And then there's the elephant in the room:

If you're going to act in your own micro-budget DIY movie, you have to actually be able to act. I will leave it to others to decide how successful I am in that area, but I will say that I am satisfied -- as the director -- with my own performance in front of the camera, and ultimately, that's all you have to go on. I can say, with almost full certainty, that if I were just beginning to make films now, it's doubtful whether I would think about acting (or at least, starring) in them myself. But it's a role I've sort of "grown up" with, concurrent with my own directing efforts, and so I've grown accustomed to taking on the acting duties when the situation calls for it.

Back when I was making The Professional, and was asked about whether it was difficult taking direction from myself, I had made a conscious choice to star in my films, as I was primarily making comedies at that time. Comedy is, by far, the hardest type of role to take on. If an actor does not have a knack for timing, or verbal delivery, or performing bits of comic business, the entire thing falls apart. I make no claims for myself as a comic performer, but I will say that in terms of directing myself, I found that I was able to perform the kind of comedy that I envisioned for these films, so at least in that sense, my acting in them was not a detriment.

I think I have less of an affinity for dramatic roles, but I still love getting in front of the camera and acting. I'd love to act in other peoples' films, and have enjoyed that experience on more than one occasion.

I do not especially recommend acting in your own DIY movies unless you really enjoy it and find that you are able to deliver performances that you, as a director, are happy with. As I mentioned, I started doing so from the very beginning partly out of necessity but just as much because I had a desire to act, and in that sense, DIY filmmaking provided me with a way of doing that.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 4: Stop-and-Go

When it comes time to actually make a movie, that's when the reality starts to set in. You've written your script, even looked at the resources that you have access to, and mentally prepared yourself for taking that first step back in to the creative process.

Then it comes time to get together all of the people and stuff needed to make the movie. And this is where it can become heartbreaking.

In making Unknown Number, I'd decided that I wanted to kick things up a notch, to make the production a little more polished and professional than my previous DIY efforts. This may sound a little contradictory, since the whole point of micro-budget DIY filmmaking is just to make the movie with whatever you have access to and get it done any way you have to.

Well, yes. But you have to remember, this is my 28th short film since 2006 (which doesn't even count the dozens and dozens of short films and features I made prior to film school, going all the way back to 1993). Each time you make the effort of embarking on a movie, it's only natural that you should want to make it better, in some way, than what you did the last time.

And one of the ways in which I hoped to do that on Unknown Number was to hire a videographer. My thinking was that by hiring someone who had access to professional level equipment, and who could handle the tasks of shooting and lighting the film (as well as all post-production services), I would be able to take the production up a few notches as I'd hoped.

I want to stop here for a moment to make something very clear: I am in no way disparaging the work done by my collaborators on previous efforts. On my previous films (and, it would turn out, on Unknown Number too) I have used my own cameras to shoot the movie. Often, I handle the duties of cinematographer myself. In some cases, this has not posed any particular challenge. For example, on my last film, The Survivor, I directed and shot the film since I was not acting in it, and given the relative simplicity of the shots, it was not especially difficult. In contrast, when I made the film before that one, Mercenary, I faced a unique set of challenges. In that one, I play the lead role, and I was directing and shooting it as well as an entirely one-man operation. For that film, I was able to set the camera up on the tripod in the hotel room to get the shots that I needed of me on the phone, sitting on the bed, etc. Where it became especially difficult was when I was filming myself walking around the streets, and had to mount the camcorder on the end of a "selfie stick" designed for lightweight smartphones. I made it work, but it was a tremendous compromise in terms of what I was able to achieve with it.

Those are exactly the kinds of compromises I was hoping to move away from with Unknown Number. And to do that, my first step was to look into hiring a cinematographer. I was put in touch with someone who had been recommended to me, but never heard anything back in response to my inquiry. This was very disappointing, and I'm not sure what happened. But it did momentarily give me pause as to whether or not I would continue with the film. This was one of the first strikes I encountered in that department.

Once I had accepted that I was going to have to return to using my own equipment, I spoke with my wife, who has shot a number of my films, as well as taking charge of the responsibilities of the art department in various capacities. She agreed to shoot the film, but I also did not want to ask too much and overload her with production design responsibilities as well.

Once again, I found myself seriously debating whether or not to even continue with the film. This is both one of the luxuries, but also one of the curses, of making a DIY movie. Because it is very easy, tempting even, just to pull the plug on it when you begin to encounter these kinds of compromises and challenges. As I mentioned earlier, there is always a part of me that wants to do better than I did last time.

After further deliberation, I reached out to my father, who had also shot many of my earlier films. He's a photography enthusiast, and I thought he might have access to a DSLR camera that I'd be able to borrow for the shoot. He didn't, but he agreed to shoot it for me using my camcorder. This would also allow my wife to take on the production design responsibilities without any other considerations.

There was one other issue: I had reached out to a friend and voice-actor with whom I've worked a number of times in the past ten years, about recording a voice-over for a character who is heard only through the phone. He was interested, but wasn't available for some time. The challenges I described above happened largely in that interim. At the last minute before our recording session, I decided to pull the plug on Unknown Number.

At this point, you might be wondering why I bother with this at all if it results in all of this back-and-forth. Well, like I said in a previous post, when you feel the time is right to make a movie, you get into action to make it happen. All of the compromises and challenges on top of that are things that need to be dealt with, but there also comes a point where you have to ask yourself whether it is worth trying to continue at all if there are too many compromises to be made.

You see, I've made this choice in the past, to plow ahead with making a movie even when the project becomes greatly compromised by the circumstances surrounding the production. Sometimes, when you go this route, you can step back and look at the results and realize that it didn't turn out half-bad. But after the last couple of films I'd made, I really did not want to repeat the process of making something on such a limited amount of resources. I wanted to do better.

So, at this point, Unknown Number was dead in the water. I wasn't thrilled with the decision, to be sure, but at the time I made it, I thought it was the right one. However, as the next several days passed, I found myself thinking about the project, and whether it was really the best choice just to let it die this way. I just couldn't shake the feeling that it might have been a mistake, after all, to pull the plug that way, rather than moving ahead.

I wish I could say that I had some big revelation, some big "a ha" moment in which everything crystallized, in which I picked up the camera and decided to go back out there and make the movie!

Well, it's not exactly like that. Rather, I came to the realization for myself that if I let Unknown Number go unmade, I would eventually come to regret the decision. Even if it was the easiest solution in the short term, I knew that, long-term, I'd be sorry I didn't do it when I had the chance.

This is something else that I can't stress enough about making a DIY movie: timing is everything. Everything. This is probably true even in Hollywood (think about how many times we read about films simmering for years on the back burner, or stuck in the purgatory of development hell). When you're making a movie entirely on your own like this, with any expenses self-financed entirely out of your own pocket, your personal life circumstances are inextricably linked to being able to make the movie. And when you have the opportunity, when all of the other elements are there that you need in order to do it, that's when you have to strike. Because there's no guarantee that everything will come together like that again.

So, after some hemming and hawing, I decided to move forward with Unknown Number again. This time, there could be no turning back...

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 3: But seriously, why now?

I really can't say why I decided to make Unknown Number at this particular moment. Sure, I could go on about getting access to a location, having all the pieces come together, etc. etc. etc. But none of that matters if it isn't the right time to make the movie.

Obviously, when you're self-financing a DIY short film out of your own pocket that will be shown on YouTube, you're not doing the project for the money. So you don't sign up to do a film like this because you have any expectations of trying to make any money. Hardly.

Why then?

Well, the only answer I can begin to provide is that, when you want to make movies, you want to make movies, and you will do what you have to do to make that happen. And a big part of that is striking when an opportunity presents itself.

I still haven't answered the question, have I?

Ok. Maybe I don't have an answer.

I'll mention a few things:

This is the first fiction film I've made since 2017. My last one was The Survivor, a dystopian historical fiction about a man struggling to survive in the wilderness after a catastrophic war had decimated the country. Sounds pretty elaborate? Well, not really. It was basically made with a single actor, and myself on camera and directing, using voice over narration to suggest the large-scale events off-screen.

This is a technique I've used numerous times before, and it's served me well in being able to tell stories on a micro-budget. But even this approach has its limitations, and I felt that I was pushing those limitations with that project and the one I made immediately before it, Mercenary (which I released on YouTube at the end of 2016).

Part of what made Unknown Number an appealing project is that it could be done with just a single actor (and I knew I'd step in to play that role). But at the same time, because it was to be shot in a controlled environment (the office), I knew that it would give me more freedom in trying out some new technical ideas and pushing myself to do better work than I'd done last time. In many ways, the project presented some of the same pitfalls and limitations I'd encountered with both Mercenary and The Survivor, but I wanted to push beyond those limitations and create something that would surpass what I'd done before. If you're not growing, it can be discouraging to feel like you're repeating yourself or treading water.

When I had the idea to go back to the well and film the script for Unknown Number, it had been nearly three years since I'd shot The Survivor. In the interim, I'd been working a lot in the documentary form, making short film history videos for YouTube as well as the documentary subject Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film, a portrait of Baltimore film historian George Figgs. Cinevangelist occupied a lot of my time over the past two-plus years, as I did an extensive roll-out and eventually self-distributed it via Vimeo on Demand (more on that in a later post).

After spending almost three years in the documentary realm, I suppose I yearned to return to making the kind of fiction film that was what primarily drew me to making films in the first place. Unknown Number presented that opportunity. And I hoped that after three years, I would have had time to re-charge and perhaps think differently about how to do things, which would then, hopefully, result in creating something above and beyond what I'd done before.

These are your hopes, anyway, when you go into a project like this. Obviously, you can't know exactly how things will go, or how things will turn out. But the more you do it -- the more you give yourself the experience of making the movies -- the better of an idea you'll have about these things.

I'll be honest -- going through the process of making a movie this way often brings up a lot of doubts and reservations for me. I don't know many people who, at a young age, dream of making micro-budget DIY movies into their '30s. I suspect many of us who do this started out with the goal of having access to the same kinds of resources as the filmmakers whose work inspired us. How many filmmakers describe watching Citizen Kane as the catalyst that ignited their desire to make films of their own? I know that was certainly the case for me, and hearing the stories about how Welles got access to the vast resources of RKO studios right out of the gate is the stuff of legend.

Of course, aspiring filmmakers only hear those exceptional success stories. And you quickly learn that very, very few filmmakers ever have that kind of opportunity -- even ones who may have been working in the industry for years, let alone on their very first film. Then it comes down to the question: do you really want to make movies?

If the answer to that question is honestly a "yes", then you will find a way. If you cling to the idea that you have to be like Orson Welles making Citizen Kane or Steven Spielberg making Jaws, you'll likely be disappointed and will walk away from it when those opportunities fail to materialize. You have to adjust in order to keep on going. And you keep giving yourself that experience so you can get better at it.

Maybe that's all the reason you need.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 2: Identifying What You've Got

With the script for Unknown Number finished, it now got stuffed in to the digital drawer for the next six years. What made me pull it out again and decide to produce it?

As is usually the case with this kind of thing, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what made me pull the script out again and decide that this was the time to film it. Sometimes something just sparks your imagination and you think of an old script but have new ideas about what you could do with it.

To return to something I said in my previous post, what I find often sparks this renewed interest in an idea is when resources become available that make it possible to film it. In this case, it was the realization that I could get access to an office location very much like the one needed for the script.

This gets back to my point that when you're working with no budget on an entirely DIY production, you really have to start with the resources that you have access to and go from there. For example, in this script, the office we'd originally written for included an elevator, and the opening and closing shots would involve the main character in the elevator as the doors open or close.

This new office that I got access to had no elevator. In the end, this is a minor detail that was easily worked around by simply adapting the action of the opening and closing scenes of the script. If I had insisted on only making the movie on condition that I'd been able to find an office with exactly the kind of layout we needed, then the script would still be fitting unfilmed.

At the end of the day, these kinds of minor re-adjustments to your script can be made without compromising the overall vision of the project. And, as I mentioned before, by having to work around these limitations, they can often lead to new inspiration.

Securing the location was the major hurdle I had to clear in order to begin thinking seriously about producing Unknown Number. And I emphasize producing. When you're a DIY filmmaker, you're not only a director, but often also a producer (and about a dozen other roles). In my case, I'm also an actor (something I'll get into more detail about in a later post). As a producer, you have to wear a different hat, and go in to the process with a clear-eyed view of what you can do, rather than what you'd like to do. We've all heard the stories about directors fighting for their vision against the penny-pinching cost-saving demands of the front office. When you're a DIY filmmaker, you have to have these arguments with yourself. How much (or little) can I spend without completely compromising the quality and purpose of my project?

These are questions that you have to reconcile for yourself as a filmmaker. Making DIY, micro-budget movies forces you to think creatively and realistically about these decisions. After securing my location, for instance, I grappled with the issue of hiring crew, and the challenges that that presented (another subject for a future post).

Leaving all of these practical matters aside, there is still the question of "why now?" What made me want to return to this idea and produce this script at this point in time?

That's harder to answer, but I will attempt to do so in my next post.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 1: The Script

Production diary, January 24, 2020:

I recently completed the production of a short film, Unknown Number. I've made quite a few micro/no-budget, DIY short films over the past decade (this one being my 28th since 2006). I'll write more at a later point about how I started making films, some of the technology I've used and how it's changed, and other general observations on making these movies.

But for now, I thought it might be interesting to record the process here that I went through in making Unknown Number, while it's still fresh in my mind. I love reading about others' experiences in making truly personal, DIY cinema, so I hope this might be of some use to others starting out on making their own films.

The idea for this film started back in 2013, and was based on an actual Internet scam that I had learned about. I often draw on ideas like this in making short thrillers. I spoke with my friend Bill, with whom I've worked on a number of short film projects over the years (sometimes acting together, sometimes writing scripts together, and sometimes directing films based on his original scripts).

Anyway, Bill and I started discussing the idea for this film and were excited by the possibilities it afforded for making a low-budget short film. Bill and I wrote the script together over a period of a few days. I presented the initial idea and outline to Bill, and then he went to work putting his distinctive spin on the dialogue and developing key scenes. The premise of this film is that a businessman receives a phone call from an extortionist -- a threat which may or may not be genuine -- and we watch him as he struggles throughout the rest of his day in deciding whether or not to give in to the extortionist's demands.

I don't want to give away any more than that right now, but that gives you an idea of the set-up of this script.

At this point, I can't recall exactly how many days Bill and I spent working on the script, but it took shape quickly and was completed in short order. At the time we wrote it, the setting of the office was conceived of in terms of the actual office that I worked in at the time, and I envisioned the film with that location in mind.

I did not have immediate plans to produce this script, though, and after a certain period of time, it became unfeasible for me to consider making it under the circumstances that I'd originally planned for. For reasons not worth getting into here, I eventually began working remotely and no longer had access to the office I'd originally thought about using for the film. I will get into these details of the production, and how it finally came to happen, in a later post.

To return to the script for a moment, I have to mention that what I always enjoy about working with Bill is that he and I are very much on the same wavelength. As I mentioned, we've worked together quite a few times over the years on various projects, and I've always been a fan of Bill's solo projects, both as a writer and filmmaker himself. So when I pitched the basic idea of Unknown Number, I knew he'd "get" what I was going for with this project, and I was glad when he agreed to work on it.

I mention this partly because if you're making films, or involved in any creative endeavor, one of the most rewarding things you can ask for is having a like-minded friend and collaborator to discuss ideas with, bounce thoughts around and get feedback that you trust.

Personally, when I'm making a film, I tend to view the script as a skeleton for the project. This is not to de-value the script in any way. But what I've found is that, when you're on the set, often times ideas present themselves that offer a better way of doing things than you'd originally planned for. I always remember when I was making a short film back in 2008, The Interview. I had written the script for this one, but Bill was acting in it with me, and when it came time to filming the climactic scene, he had an idea for omitting a bit of dialogue that I'd written, which would have the effect of making the very last scene even more effective, because of how it built up a moment of suspense.

This was an excellent idea and I was happy to make this change on the set, because it felt right and made the film even stronger. So, it's good to be open to listening to these ideas and to be able to consider them in relation to the overall vision of what you're trying to accomplish. That's one of the advantages of low-budget, DIY filmmaking, because you can make those changes without throwing off your budget or schedule.

I made some of those kinds of changes to the script for Unknown Number, both in the weeks leading up the production, and also on the set. When I went to scout out the location, I recognized some elements that it offered which would work even better in the film than what we'd originally written. And, as you can imagine, with it being over six years since the script had been written, there were certain aspects of it that I thought about differently, so I remained open to adapting it to fit new ideas and approaches to telling the story.

I suppose that's enough about the script for now. In my next post, I'll talk a bit about how this production got re-started, and how I went about beginning the pre-production process.

One last thing: if you're embarking on a micro-budget short, be open to adapting your vision to the resources you have at your disposal. It's fine to write a script with unlimited imagination and without any concern for whether or not it's even feasible to consider producing. But on the other hand, if you put all that time into writing a script that you cannot realistically foresee being able to film, you're pretty much ensuring that you'll end up without a film to show for it. My suggestion would be to think about what resources you have access to, and work from there. Working around limitations can lead to inspiration.

That's a good lead-in for my next post... Stay tuned!

Here are links to:
Part 2: Identifying What You've Got
Part 3: But Seriously, Why Now?
Part 4: Stop-and-Go
Part 5: Directing Yourself
Part 6: Final Cut

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Blue Parrot (1953)

I caught this Brit flick at the gym the other night. An American detective works with Scotland Yard to investigate a murder at a Soho nightclub. You know what I love about these British crime dramas? They have the Noir elements of American films that I love so much, combined with that British sense of style. You get the shiny cards, slick wet nocturnal streets, and the detective in an impeccable trench coat.

I love those dark elements and I love the British sensibility in these. Plus, at just over an hour, it was the perfect length for the gym and the perfect movie for a rainy night.

Strange Marriage (1932)

Right from the start, STRANGE MARRIAGE is surprisingly frank in its plot, beginning with a scene where a young prostitute who has been arrested on a street corner is defending herself to the night court judge, explaining that she was waiting for a date. A wealthy young idler who has wandered into the courtroom gallantly comes to her rescue by posing as the man she was supposedly waiting for, thus confirming her story. The judge is not convinced until the two agree to get married right then and there in his court.

The marriage falls apart when the girl learns that the man will not receive his inheritance unless the marriage is annulled. He, in turn, is led to believe she was only after his money. However, the girl learns that she is pregnant with their child, and struggles to raise the child on her own, until the situation is finally cleared up and the couple is reunited.

This one was especially interesting for a performance by Jason Robards Sr., a fine actor who was never really used to full advantage in the movies. Evelyn Knapp and Walter Byron are charming leads, and the great silent comedienne Marie Prevost has a nice role as Knapp's tough-talking best friend. The production was filmed at Universal Studios by an independent company, and the look of the film is marked by the characteristic sparseness of Universal's productions. I'd recently watched another independent production, FUGITIVE ROAD (1934), starring Erich von Stroheim, that had been filmed on the Universal lot by arrangement with the studio. They must have leased out space to bring in extra money during those lean years of the Depression.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Hardcore (1979) & Auto Focus (2002)

I watched both of these Paul Schrader films on the Criterion Channel last night. They made for an interesting double feature.

HARDCORE was my favorite of the two. It's the kind of film Schrader does so well, a character study of a deeply religious, conservative businessman (George C. Scott) from Grand Rapids whose daughter disappears from a church trip while in Los Angeles. After she is discovered to be acting in adult films, Scott descends into the lower depths of the porn industry to bring her back.

I missed AUTO FOCUS when it came out in 2002. This one explores the dark side of light TV comic Bob Crane, best remembered for his starring role on "Hogan's Heroes". After Crane (played by Greg Kinnear) meets video salesman John Carpenter (played by Willem Dafoe), his life takes a dark turn into recording his sexual fantasies on tape and struggling to re-brand himself so that he can continue working in Hollywood.

I frequently catch re-runs of "Hogan's Heroes" on MeTV, and am struck by what an affable leading man Crane was in that show. It's surprising that he wasn't able to build more of a career after that, but if the events in AUTO FOCUS are any indication, it seems he gave into self-destructive tendencies that prematurely ended his career, as well as his life.