Sunday, February 23, 2020

Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

I watched this low-budget independent production, Cuban Rebel Girls (1959), on Tubi tonight. I'd read about this one in Allen Baron's book, since he was involved in it as an actor and general assistant. His stories about the circumstances involved in the production certainly piqued my interest.

This is the final film of Errol Flynn, effectively playing himself as a Hollywood star who goes to Cuba to write about the revolution. It's based on a story by Flynn, which he apparently conceived of as a vehicle for his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, who co-stars with him. The pro-Castro story follows two American women, sympathetic to Castro's revolution, who travel to Cuba and become involved with a group of rebels, raising money to buy guns to be used in the revolution.

Cuban Rebel Girls was produced and directed by Barry Mahon, and photographed by Merrill Brody (who would go on to shoot Baron's Blast of Silence). The movie is a fascinating study in guerilla-style low-budget filmmaking, being shot on location in Cuba. Much of the film is shot silent and accompanied by voice-over narration, a good technique to save money and time shooting sync-sound sequences.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Magic Hour & Filmmaker Dreams

I was driving through the countryside this evening at "magic hour" -- that time when the sun has set below the horizon but the sky is still illuminated by the lingering light. This special time of day is a favorite of directors and cinematographers.

It reminded me of a couple things:

I had recently watched Visions of Light, the 1992 documentary about the art of cinematography. Nestor Almendros was talking about shooting Days of Heaven, and how much of the distinctive look of that film was achieved by filming during "magic hour". He made the point that, despite its name, it's really more like a 20 minute time window that you have to capture your shot.

It also reminded me of a dream I had about filmmaking. This was a few years ago. I dreamed I was in Brooklyn, at the edge of the water where you can get a really spectacular view of the sunset. It was "magic hour", and was an stunningly beautiful sight. However, I had left the camera and tripod in the car, and I couldn't remember where I had parked. I had to frantically search for the car to get the camera before the light was gone.

That reminds me of another filmmaking dream I had. This was about ten years ago when I was directing the first episode of a straight-to-DVD series. We had a six day schedule to shoot the entire film. After we wrapped, I began to have a recurring dream that I was going over the script for the film and kept finding some scene that I'd forgotten to schedule and shoot.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Director's Favorite Films

I enjoy occasionally perusing lists of the favorite films of certain directors. The Sight & Sound poll results are a good source of such lists.

I came across a couple of such lists from No Film School. One is the 100 favorite films of Akira Kurosawa:

The other is a list of Kubrick's 93 favorite films:

It's interesting to see the mix of expected titles, and the surprises. I like to see what the individual choices say about each filmmaker.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Black & White vs Color

I watched an interview with Peter Bogdanovich tonight, in which he shared an anecdote I've heard before. When he was preparing to shoot The Last Picture Show in black and white, Orson Welles told him that black and white was the actor's friend, that all performances were better in black and white, and challenged Bogdanovich to name him one great performance that had been filmed in color. He couldn't.

Bogdanovich speculated that black & white strips away all the distractions -- you don't notice the color of the actor's eyes, for example, and thus can focus entirely on their performance.

Bogdanovich would go on to film Paper Moon in black and white (which he felt was appropriate given the 1930s Depression-era setting), and had intended to shoot Nickelodeon that way, too, but the producer insisted on color. Bogdanovich told his cinematographer to light for black and white anyway, though, because he always intended to return to the film at some point and re-release it minus the color. He said that it made sense to shoot it in black and white since it's a film about the silent era, and made the comment that in color, it looked like a movie made in 1975.

He did later release a black and white version of the film, but I haven't seen it. It's one of my favorite Bogdanovich pictures, and one of my favorite films-about-film, so I really should try and track it down, for comparison to the color version if nothing else.

"The Interview"

I watched a cute short film tonight on one of the free Roku apps, called The Interview (no relation to my own short film of the same title). A woman goes for an interview with the daughter of the man she is dating, who grills her with a series of questions to assess her qualifications to join the family. It was a good example of an amusing idea well-executed in a short timeframe and on a low budget. I wasn't able to find any information on the director but it appears that the producer has done quite a few videos that are available on YouTube.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Kurosawa, Spielberg, and Lucas

I watched a video yesterday of Akira Kurosawa receiving a special Oscar at the 1990 Academy Awards. It was presented by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who were introduced by Jack Valenti as the "new kids on the block". That struck me as a little disingenuous, given that they'd already been working in Hollywood for a couple of decades at that point and were hardly "kids". But in any case, it was good to see the two filmmakers pay tribute to the master who'd had such a profound influence on both of them.

I found Kurosawa's speech especially moving. He said that he did not feel that he had earned this Oscar yet, because he feels he does not yet understand cinema, and has not yet discovered the essence of cinema. But now that he has the Oscar, he promises that he will keep working at it and do his best to earn the award. It's a good reminder that even someone as accomplished as Kurosawa, undoubtedly one of the very finest film artists the medium has ever produced, continued to grapple with these questions about the art of cinema and pushing himself to reach new heights.

You can watch his full speech on YouTube:

Netflix Viewing: "Brain on Fire" and "To the Bone"

I caught up with two movies on Netflix last night. The first one sounded intriguing -- Brain on Fire (2016) was a true-life drama about a young woman who develops an unknown condition that leads to hallucinations, seizures, and eventually puts her into a near-catatonic state that results in her hospitalization. I saw that it starred Chloe Grace Moretz, whom I had only previously seen in Martin Scorsese's Hugo as the granddaughter of Georges Melies. Also in the cast were Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Tyler Perry and Carrie Ann Moss.

Afterward, I watched To the Bone (2017), about a young woman recovering from anorexia. She's an aspiring artist and had gained some attention for her self-portraits on her blog, but is now placed into a recovery center for people struggling with eating disorders. Lily Collins stars along with Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp and Liana Liberato.

One thing that struck me about both films is the degree to which either one would have felt right at home as a TV movie of the week on network television in years past. I admire the craftsmanship and economy of storytelling in these productions. They can also serve as a good actors' showcase. Moretz in Brain on Fire and Collins in To the Bone both did excellent work, largely carrying the film through their respective performances.

TV movies and their various iterations get a bad rap in some quarters for their predictability or formulaic qualities, but I find them inspiring from the perspective of the opportunity they offer to practice the craft of directing.

I think what draws me to the idea of directing professionally for TV/streaming/web is that the process of it reminds me of what I've read about the Hollywood studio system of the '30s and '40s. I now watch a lot of TV shows in the evenings, old programs like "Hogan's Heroes" and "Perry Mason" as well as newer ones, both on TV and on Netflix, and find myself drawn to the way they're staged, shot, edited. It's funny, because I never paid that much attention to them before, but as of late, I've really taken notice.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

DIY Dolly

In his memoir, Allen Baron mentions that in filming Blast of Silence, they used a dolly consisting of wheels that attached to the base of the tripod. I used this same type of dolly when I shot Unknown Number. The trick, of course, is stabilizing the movement when you have the wheels but no track to run them on. Well, Baron and his crew came up with a good solution to that: throwing a 100-pound sack of sand across the base of the dolly to help keep it steady!

Wish I'd thought of that...

Peter Bogdanovich on Film Technology

Peter Bogdanovich was interviewed on Reddit a few years ago. He was asked about his thoughts on the digital revolution in filmmaking, and the fact that it's possible to shoot a film on a smartphone for very little money. He viewed this as a plus, and brought up a good point that doesn't get talked about that often in relation to these developments:

"Because I think amateur filmmakers, or wannabe filmmakers, will discover from using that equipment that it isn't as easy to make a movie as sometimes people think it is.
And it might actually invigorate the art of the movies, because younger people who want to make movies can get the materials, the technical materials necessary to make the movies, much more easily." (source:

The ease of access to technology and the low cost of production have laid bare the realities of moviemaking for even the most entry-level amateur. For those willing to put in the work and who have the dedication and discipline to see the project through, it is indeed easier than ever before at a purely technical level to get the movie made. However, these same advantages have made it more difficult for wannabes to make excuses about why they aren't making anything.

It strikes me that at the beginning of the digital revolution, there was this idea that anyone could make a movie and indeed it seemed like everyone with even a passing interest in it was giving it a try. Now, to some extent, it might be that -- as with anything -- digital filmmaking has simply become more professionalized in a way that it wasn't 20 years ago, back when digital was viewed largely as the purview of the amateur or DIY hobbyist. Now that Hollywood has gone digital, and the professional level equipment has become so much more costly and sophisticated, it could be that it has opened up a lot of the same insecurities and disparities that existed before with film.

But I tend to agree with Bogdanovich -- that when wannabes who think that it will be "easy" to make a movie get their hands on digital tools that they think will make the movie for them, they're going to be in for a surprise that it's still not that easy.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Releases and Permits

I've been reading Allen Baron's memoir about the making of Blast of Silence. He mentioned how they shot the film around NYC entirely without permits. One of the locations was a barge that was tied up in the harbor. Baron, playing the hitman, climbed up on the barge and was filmed walking around on it. The watchman spotted him and told them to stop filming. He continued to film on the barge for a few more minutes while the crew distracted the watchman.

When the film was picked up for distribution by Universal, the owner of the barge evidently saw the film and successfully sued the studio for a small sum because he hadn't given permission for the barge to be used.

I remember reading an interview with Kevin Brownlow somewhere. He said that when United Artists picked up his film It Happened Here for distribution, they asked him to get talent releases for all of the people involved. Since there was a cast of hundreds, most of whom were non-professional volunteers, it took something like two years to fully track down every last one of them and get them to sign off.

Observations on Film Art

I've been watching a good series of videos on the Criterion Channel called "Observations on Film Art". These video essays by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson that take a formal analysis of various films. I watched one this morning about the use of three-point lighting in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), followed by one on classical Hollywood editing in Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy (1924).

These are fascinating for budding filmmakers to understand how some of these films are put together and how they work. It's like a master class in the construction of different film elements. These videos really make you appreciate how the techniques are used, and the effects that they create.

I keep thinking what an incredible time it must be to be a budding filmmaker. There is so much material out there to learn from. I was watching the 1992 documentary Visions of Light the other night, about the art of cinematography, and thinking back to how inspiring I found that film when I saw it as a kid in the '90s. There are so many great videos out there now on YouTube and streaming sites like Criterion that a young filmmaker could learn from. It really is like having a whole, virtual film school at your fingertips.

The great thing, to me, about this "Observations on Film Art" series is that it is of value to both scholars and filmmakers. If you're interested in learning about the theoretical and conceptual aspects of making a film, the videos do a good job of illustrating that angle. And as a filmmaker, you can learn how the films are put together and achieve the effects that they have on audiences. Learning this way provides a more comprehensive experience for both -- learning not just how something was done, but why.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Art of Subtitling

I watched an interesting featurette on The Criterion Channel yesterday about the history of subtitling foreign films for English-language audiences. It included some excerpts of films like Grand Illusion and Open City in their original US release prints, which illustrated how limited the early subtitle translations were compared to their latter-day restorations. The point was made that, even though far more dialogue is translated today than in the '40s, say, it is still unwieldy and counterproductive to try and translate all of the dialogue spoken in a film, because it would become overwhelming to read that many subtitles in such short order. It made me think about how much dialogue we hear in films that is not absolutely essential to conveying information that we need to know, but adds a layer of texture to the experience. As Bruce Goldstein pointed out, the subtitler's job is to capture the essence of what is being said, rather than trying to translate each and every spoken word.

I was glad to see Herman G. Weinberg mentioned in the video, as a pioneer of the subtitling process back in the '30s. It was Weinberg who was responsible for helping to bring many foreign-language classics to US audiences for the first time. I've long been interested in Weinberg's work in cinema. He was really a jack-of-all-trades, working as a music arranger for silent film scores and as a manager of the Little Theater in Baltimore, an early arthouse theater. He also made the avant garde short film, Autumn Fire, while he was living in Baltimore in 1931.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Film music

I attended a concert yesterday by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They performed a selection of music from the film scores of Charlie Chaplin, including suites from The Kid and City Lights. Having seen the movies so many times, the music and images are burned in to my mind. Just hearing the music could make me laugh or cry, thinking about the scenes that it accompanies. This was especially true for The Kid, with that beautiful, powerful music during the scene when Jackie Coogan is taken away in the orphanage truck.

It was a delightful concert. They also performed selections of classical music that either influenced Chaplin, or which show his influence in the art of film scoring, such as the themes from Schindler's List and Cinema Paradiso.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Son of Kong (1933) on Svengoolie

I'm watching Svengoolie on MeTV tonight, and he's showing Son of Kong, the sequel to King Kong released later the same year as the original (1933). I've always marveled at how quickly this film must have been rushed through production in order to get it out so quickly. It's a far cry from the brilliance of the first film, to be sure. But it's another reminder of how much I love these monster movies, especially with the characters that Willis O'Brien imbued with so much personality. Robert Armstrong was really a great lead in the Kong films and in the later Mighty Joe Young, bringing just the right mix of attitude and humor to the mix.

For as quickly as this must have been produced, the stop-motion animation is still quite good, even if it is a bit less memorable than that in the original Kong. And of course, it's also lacking Fay Wray. But otherwise, it's a fun excursion back to the magical world of Skull Island.

Big Studio Backing

At the gym last night, I was watching the making-of doc about the production of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). In it, he mentions that the film was originally with Paramount, but that the studio got nervous as the production date got closer, and pulled the plug. Fortunately, Universal picked up the project and carried on getting it made.

It hit me how much things have changed in the film industry that a unique, provocative, and personal film like Do the Right Thing could get big studio backing.

It reminds me of a good article published in Flavorwire a few years ago, "How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA":

The article cites directors like David Lynch and John Waters as examples of the really distinctive, personal filmmakers who are finding it increasingly difficult to get their projects off the ground given the shifting expectations of mid-budget cinema.

Thankfully, things have improved somewhat since that article was published in 2014, largely due to new opportunities afforded by streaming platforms like Netflix and independent studios like A24.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Indie Filmmaker in Hollywood

I've been reading the Allen Barron memoir Blast of Silence. I knew he'd directed many episodes of TV shows from the '60s-'80s, and decided to look some of them up to see which of his episodes I could find online. I saw that Roku was offering three seasons of "Charlie's Angels", which included at least a couple directed by Barron.

I watched one last night called "Angels at Sea", from 1977.  The plot found the Angels on a cruise ship being menaced by a madman. The climax finds them having to diffuse a series of bombs that have been planted around the ship. It was fun seeing an example of Barron's Hollywood directing work. It made me think about the career trajectory of filmmakers who direct an independent movie and then go on to work in the Hollywood film industry making commercial, mainstream films or TV shows.

For someone who loves directing and the process of making movies, it seems like it would be a great way to spend your career, because of the sheer amount of experience you could get with a steady stream of work. Some filmmakers take the approach that they only want to direct projects over which they have complete creative control, that they've developed from scratch, etc. But it seems to me that commercial work in directing film and television would provide a lifetime of learning about the medium, similar to the working methods of studio contract directors of Hollywood's golden age. I remember in Martin Scorsese's Personal Journey through American Movies, he mentions that Michael Curtiz directed something like 60 films in the 1930s alone, and points out what an incredible opportunity this must have been for him to perfect his craft.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Obsessing over gear

Victor Kemper in Light and Shadow -- Greatest Cinematographers of the World, Interviewed.

I watched a good documentary on YouTube while at the gym last night, Light and Shadow -- Greatest Cinematographers of the World, Interviewed. It features short interviews with many of the top cinematographers discussing their art and craft. It makes a nice supplemental companion piece to Visions of Light.

One comment, made by Victor Kemper, particularly stood out to me:

"I feel very strongly about this for kids who are just trying to get in to the industry.  If you think for one moment that Hollywood gives a damn about what camera you used on a job, they don't even know, and I bet you couldn't even find three people who would even ask. So nobody should be worried about what camera they're using. The tool is there -- if you know how to use it, and you've got the talent, and you've got the drive, you can shoot a damn good movie."

I'm always struck by how the further up the chain you go, the less people seem to care about issues of gear and equipment. I certainly agree with the view that he expresses here, as someone who has always been dogged by criticism over not using the latest and greatest cameras and gear for my own shoots, for the simple fact that I am unable to afford them.

At the same time, I can't help wondering if this is a little bit of wishful thinking. Although we hear lots of stories about movies shot on iPhones or what have you, there's still the reality that Netflix, for example, has certain requirements about what cameras can be used to shoot original productions for their streaming service. So they most definitely care.

And of course, there's the reality that were you to try and shoot a Hollywood movie with a consumer level camcorder (like the one I used on Unknown Number), it would never fly.

Still, though, it's interesting that I've heard this sentiment expressed by professionals before. I find that among amateurs or non-professionals I encounter, they are often a lot more hung up on the gear being used, rather than the ideas you're working toward expressing. I've never understood this mindset. If you get so hung up on the equipment you're using that you freeze up and never produce anything, then what good is it doing you?

The issue of cameras and gear becomes a convenient excuse for why someone isn't producing anything, and can also be used as a way of marking by degrees the "serious" non-professional from the amateur hobbyist. At the end of the day, none of these distinctions should matter. But now that the means of production are now theoretically available to anyone, I suppose it's inevitable that new barriers to entry should be put up.

I'm reminded of something I noticed about 10 or 12 years ago, right after YouTube had really started to become big. Now that anyone could put their films out there for a worldwide audience to see, it took some of the power away from small film festivals that had previously been the only way for filmmakers to have their work shown. I remember reading an interview with a programmer from a local, DIY film festival who was bemoaning the fact that it was getting more difficult to find filmmakers interested in even showing their work at the festival, because they were now able to post their films to YouTube. I don't think it's surprising that film festivals came back with a vengeance around this time, because -- as with the fixation on gear -- it provides a further barrier to entry in an age when those barriers are continually being demolished by new possibilities.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

The odds of indie success

I just started reading a memoir by Allen Baron, director of the 1961 independent cult classic Blast of Silence. It's a gritty, low-budget, independent film, shot in New York, about a hitman who comes from Ohio to carry out the killing of a mob boss. Baron wrote, directed, and starred in it. It was his first movie, following some work he did on a film made in Cuba in the late '50s.

Blast of Silence turned out to be Baron's ticket to Hollywood success. He got his big break when the film was acquired by Universal Studios for distribution, launching him in to a directing career in Hollywood, where he worked mostly on TV shows, directing dozens of episodes from the '60s to the '80s.

I've been interested in Baron's story ever since seeing Blast of Silence, a movie that I love and that has fueled my own desire to keep making low-budget, DIY movies. I was excited to see that he'd published a memoir detailing his life and career. I just started reading it but am already learning a lot about independent filmmaking in the 1950s.

Baron wrote an interesting article for Filmmaker Magazine a few years ago, around the time his memoir was published, detailing the differences between making an independent feature film in 1959 vs. today:

Aside from all of the technical issues that would be much cheaper and simpler to handle today, he also discusses the difference in the odds of finding success with your film once it is completed:

"Attempting to make an independent film today as opposed to 1959 would present a far different set of problems. For one thing, in 1959 I doubt if more than a half-dozen independent movies were attempted to be made. Today, because of the use of a digital camera, literally thousands of independent movies are being made. While I’m sure that among the many thousands there are probably some very excellent movies, the crowded field makes it very difficult for distributors to make a selection. Today, anybody can go into a store, purchase a digital video camera and start shooting a movie. This was absolutely impossible in 1959 because of the use of film and expensive equipment that was necessary to shoot a movie. An additional point that emphasizes the difference between then and now is the fact that in 1959 I doubt if there were more than half a dozen film festivals in the world. Today there are literally hundreds." (Allen Baron, "Blast of Silence: Independent Filmmaking, Then and Now", Filmmaker Magazine).

This is the dilemma of reaching for success in indie film today. Yes, it's much easier than ever to actually get a film made. People are making movies on their smartphones. I shot a short documentary on my Android phone that has played on the big screen and looked great up there.

But what do you do when there are so many films being made out there, all competing for attention at the countless film festivals around the world? (And I think Mr. Baron is being conservative when he says there are "hundreds" of festivals out there. Judging by what I see on websites like Film Freeway, that number now has to be in the thousands, at least).

I find myself taking the attitude that just putting your film out on YouTube, Vimeo, etc. and doing whatever you can to get it in front of people is perhaps the most productive strategy we can take today, depending on what your goals are. I've been thinking about this with Unknown Number, because my ultimate hope for it is that it will serve as a calling card short. Would I love for the right person in Hollywood to see it? You bet! But I'm happy to have anyone watch it and enjoy it. And as far as I can tell, that can only really happen if I just put it out there to be seen.

This gets back to the point I made in a previous post, that it seems like if you really want to have film festival success above all else, you have to really want to have film festival success above all else. You have to do whatever it takes to get your film in shape that it will get on the radar of festival screening committees, panels, judges, etc. With the thousands of submissions that these festivals likely receive, it's a long shot just to get in. Personally, my take on it is that since it's such a long shot anyway, you might as well make the film you want to make and stick true to your vision for it, rather than trying to shape it into something else just because it might, supposedly, increase its chances of getting into a festival.

As Allen Baron points out, back in 1959, the odds were a lot better that your film -- if you overcame all of the obstacles and challenges in getting it made, that is -- would rise to the surface and get on the radar of film festivals and distributors. Since that seems not to be the case anymore today, you might as well focus on making the film you want to make, any way that you can.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Good advice from Mardik Martin

I always liked this quote from Mardik Martin, screenwriter of Mean Streets and Raging Bull, among many others:

"If you're a shrinking violet who sits in the corner, no one's going to give a shit about you. You've got to present yourself."

Monday, February 03, 2020

Prepping for festival submissions

I'm looking into a couple of film festivals to submit Unknown Number to, now that I've more or less signed off on the final cut of the film. I received some constructive feedback on the film so far from people I trust, which is always appreciated. It does bring up a point, though: "festival" films can be very much their own genre, and if you really want to get in to a festival more than anything else, you have to be willing to accept and implement every bit of advice you receive (even if it's contradictory).

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Big Easy (1986) & Sundance

I can't recall what prompted it, but last night I was thinking about Jim McBride's 1983 remake of Breathless, which I'd recently seen for the first time on one of the free Roku channels (I think it was Tubi) and enjoyed quite a bit. I saw that The Big Easy was available on there, and decided to give it a watch. Dennis Quaid plays a corrupt cop in New Orleans who is being investigated by an agent with the DA's office (played by Ellen Barkin). The film appeared to be shot entirely on location, capturing the atmosphere of the city quite nicely with an energy and vitality characteristic of McBride's filmmaking style. John Goodman, Ned Beatty and Grace Zabriskie all put in good supporting performances.

I read that Robert Redford recalled The Big Easy to be the first film to be sold at the Sundance Film Festival. Apparently, it was thanks to Redford's insistence that the head of Columbia Pictures saw the film at the festival, which resulted in it getting picked up for distribution by the studio.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Uncut Gems (2019)

After hearing so much about Adam Sandler's performance in it, I finally went to see Uncut Gems today. For some reason, I'd had the idea that this was a Netflix original production and had thought I might be able to watch it on that service, but I was wrong.

Sandler plays a jeweler with a gambling addiction. Just as he manages to pull himself out of one bad situation, he gets pulled right back in to another. This is a very high-energy, intense movie. There's one scene, early on, when Sandler is in his shop surrounded by chaos that almost brings to mind the madcap energy of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. We follow Sandler through one scrape after another, as his debts mount and tension builds, until he comes up with one final scheme that might save the day.

I saw that Martin Scorsese was one of the executive producers. That makes sense. This felt like the kind of film Scorsese might have made back in the '70s.