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Archive for January, 2020

2020 Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up: Week Three

Friday, January 31st, 2020

Week Three of Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up ventures into the mysterious world of television. Unlike feature films, television has directors with little authority, writers with all the power and story arcs that can last decades. Directors Kyle Patrick Alvarez (The Stanford Prison Experiment13 Reasons Why), Silas Howard (PoseThis is Us), Marvin Lemus (Gentefield) and Lynn Shelton (HumpdayThe Morning ShowGlow) reveal what happens behind the camera of the most popular television shows.

The role of the director in film contrasts with television directors. In feature films, the director has unlimited creative authority in every single department. In television, some directors may experience a limited amount of authority, but many cannot adjust the script in any way or have little control of the final edit of the episodes.

Wendy Calhoun, Marvin Lemus, Lynn Shelton, Silas Howard, Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Directors will often direct a single episode while crew members, writers, and producers generally stay on the same show for years. Silas Howard compared it to “throwing a party at someone else’s house” and moderator Wendy Calhoun compared it to the relationship between a substitute and a teacher. To help get to know the crew, some directors will greet and speak with every member of the crew or utilize unconventional methods such as bringing the crew candy or baked goods (which, according to the panel, has an impressive success rate). To help initiate directors, “shadowing” sometimes occurs wherein a possible future director will “shadow” the current director to learn the feel for the production and style of the show.

The show writers have so much creative influence that the medium has become known as the “writer’s medium.” The writers ensure that, not only does each episode have an interesting, entertaining and original story, but that the world maintains consistency throughout every episode as well. For some shows, this becomes more complicated when writers must also consider overarching intertwining subplots such as the highly acclaimed Game of Thrones, which throughout its seven seasons had dozens of plot lines with dozens of characters that ranged from a few episodes long to multiple seasons long.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Lynn Shelton, Wendy Calhoun, Silas Howard, Marvin Lemu

To assist in production, writers create “show bibles” that give basic information on the characters, settings and other aspects of the world being portrayed. Sometimes, the production also creates “look books” which use a series of photographs, color pallets and more to convey the tone of the show. Showrunners, which lead the production of a show,  meet with directors to discuss each episode in meetings called “tone meetings,” that can last as long as nine hours. 

Recently, the world of television has begun to lose its strangeness as film and TV have merged more and more. Filmmakers now create “cinematic universes” which resemble the styles of TV and TV networks such as HBO develop shows where each episode can last over an hour and the greater show-wide plot has a large singular central conflict, similar to most feature film plots. Perhaps eventually it will be the world of film that seems mysterious, as television and instant streaming shows grow in popularity worldwide. 

For more information on Film Independent, go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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2020 Directors Close Up * Week Two

Friday, January 24th, 2020

Acting allows a script to transform from words on a page into an emotional and three-dimensional performance. So, Week Two of Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up delved into the relationship between actor and director by hearing from Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach, actress Martha Kelly (Nancy Katz) and casting director Francine Maisler.

Before actors can bring characters to life, a screenplay must be written for them to inhabit. Noah, who also wrote the screenplay for Marriage Story, spoke in detail about his unique writing process. Unlike most writers, Noah includes his actors and crew in the writing process allowing him to “have a dialogue with them.” This included interviewing every actor, so he can tailor the characters to their personalities. At the end of the film, when Adam Driver (Charlie) plays the guitar, Noah explained that the moment had been specifically written for Adam. Similarly, one of Laura Dern’s (Nora Franshaw) monologues directly came from conversations between Noah and Laura. 

Noah focuses on ensuring the script resembles reality as much as possible, so he tends to interview people who have experienced similar things to what the characters experienced. For Marriage Story, he interviewed many individuals who have had experience with both marriage and divorce to ensure that the story maintains as much realism as possible. To add more realism, Noah collected stories that he heard from friends and families and found “the right place for it at the right time.” In a scene from Marriage Story, Charlie accidentally cuts himself. Noah states that the inspiration came from a real-life event that happened to a friend of his. 

While these strategies help ensure the film flows naturally, casting the right individuals has a large influence on the quality of the film. Casting director Francine Maisler spoke on their process, saying Noah treats “every part like it’s the lead.” Noah takes time to find the right actor for each role and works with them to ensure they understand the character. Noah and Francine will sometimes save the names of actors they meet so they can work with them on future projects, one example is Merrit Weaver (Cassie), whom they met years ago and decided she would be perfect in Marriage Story. During the audition process, he wants the actors to not know the lines, to be slightly unrefined, or even “raw.” This allows him to work with the actors to develop a strong character.

After casting and writing have been completed, he conducts rehearsals not to practice the lines but the “blocking and rhythm of the dialogue.” This also helps the actors learn the character. An example is with Alan Alda’s portrayal of Bert Spitz. Alda told Noah that he didn’t understand the Bert’s character until he saw the set for Bert’s office. Onset, Noah avoids saying “action” to push the actors to perform the same way they would off-camera, which he believes allows a more natural performance. He would also does many takes or slightly adjusts the blocking of the actors or gives the actors little things to do during the scene to help naturalize the performances. 

Noah also took inspiration from previous films. He watched “screw-ball comedies from the 30s and 40s such as Persona (1966) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) to prepare for Marriage Story. When working with actors, he collaborates with them instead of ordering them. “They give me ideas in their performance,” he explains. Even with writing, Noah states that when he begins writing any script, he feels that he’s “just an amateur all over again.” Noah’s process speaks for itself, with the film receiving five nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and being honored as one of the best films of the year by the American Film Institute.

Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix now. For more information on Film Independent, go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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2020 Film Independent Directors Close Up * Week One

Sunday, January 19th, 2020

How does the look of a film get decided? What even encompasses a film’s “look”? Such questions led the discussion in week one of Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up featuring the director of Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria and costume designer of Hustlers, Mitchell Travers.

As moderator John August pointed out, cinema is a visual medium. Thus, unlike many other art forms, it can take advantage of the visual element to help further the themes of the story. For Hustlers the theme focuses on control – whether it is the main characters fighting for control of their lives or control against the greed that leads to the story’s conflicts. To create a look that further drives that theme, director Lorene Scafaria collaborated with cinematographer Todd Banhazl, production designer Jane Musky, and of course, costumer designer Mitchell Travers.

Travers spoke about his approach in creating the “thousands” of costumes for the film. Because the film takes place in a “modern period piece” between 2007 and 2015, he looked back to the styles and trends that represent the era, and not necessarily all the good aspects of the era. He wished to show “the amazing mistakes,” that the era created. He drew inspiration from celebrities of the time such as Nicole Richie, Miley Cyrus, Tila Tequila, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez who plays Ramona in the film. Travers explains that this helped represent the imperfections of the period. To achieve such visions required work – he explained the tasks required costume assistants and costume supervisors, with a costume department as big as 35 people. The same situation occurs in production design, art department and makeup. The smallest details viewers scarcely notice on-screen require months of work by sometimes thousands of people, yet, without their talents, films would look bare and unrealistic.

Films often use color, or better yet, a lack of color, to develop a theme. Hustlers has a strong focus on the greed of wealth, so Scafaria spoke about the careful consideration of how to treat the color green in the film. Despite having dozens of sets, thousands of costumes and many main characters, only in dollar bills does green appear throughout the film. This helps further bring the viewer’s focus to dollar bills as they drive the characters, the conflict and the story itself.

Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic

Every scene has its look to further its purpose in the greater story. Scafaria and Travers analyze a specific scene where Ramona and Destiny (Constance Wu) have an intense conversation in a diner where Romana attempts to convince Destiny to commit a crime. Scafaria worked closely with cinematographer Todd Banhazl to create this drama in a visual matter. The shots keep tight on the two actresses and viewers can scarcely see the interior of the diner, due to how much the two stars take up the frame. This instantly creates a secretive, pressured feeling to the scene. The movement of characters also helps further this, while Destiny stays still, Ramona moves her head as she talks and the camera moves with her. This creates a distinct energetic separation with Ramona taking a pushing, demanding role and Destiny taking the role of a follower. When the clip gets muted, it maintains that contrast without needing the dialogue to explain the purpose of the scene. Such little details ensure the audience feels the correct mood – a mixture of nervousness and adrenaline – as Destiny carefully considers whether to participate in the crime.

The first panel of Director’s Close Up lived up to its name and gave the audience a close and intimate look at the creative process for Hustlers and the many intimate details that help convert stories from a mere series of events to an emotional and human-like experience on the big screen.

For more information on Film Independent go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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