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Activity Forums Business & Career Building Is filmmaking still an option?

  • Tim Wilson

    May 1, 2020 at 4:51 am

    [greg janza] “Tim, I do believe this is the single most entertaining post I’ve ever read on the Cow.”

    Thanks so much, Greg! I love the work of all three of these guys, including their mix of commercial and “pure” filmmaking, and I can’t believe that it took me this long to write about all three in one place.

    [greg janza] “I also want to thank you for posting the Errol Morris Oscars short film. I remember watching it live and being stunned and awed at it’s greatness and I hadn’t seen it since that Oscar’s broadcast in 2002. I could watch that a hundred times and still be just as entertained on the hundredth viewing as the first. “

    Having watched it hundreds of times, I can testify that it does indeed hold up. LOL I also just noticed that Errol posted a list of all the people he spoke to in it, which you can see here. You can definitely get lost in his site, which I strongly encourage. ☺

    I mentioned that Morris is unapologetic in his love of making commercials, and indeed, of his NEED to make commercials to pay his bills, but he really does love them, too, and it shows. Even more than the commercials per se, you can see from Errol’s commercials that I linked to earlier, and this one here, that he genuinely loves people. His way of making commercials is very much a way of telling kinds of stories in a specific context, but they’re definitely stories.

    He made an ad for United after 9/11 that I found very moving. You’ll see a number of his classic moves in this one — lots of unscripted conversation, looking right at the camera — but it’s still unique. Dark background, very quiet solo piano version of the United theme in the background, some alternate angles, and it hit VERY hard at the time: “We Are United.”

    It’s still good, but at the time, it was overwhelming. There was a lot of pomp in post-9/11 advertising, not that I begrudge anyone trying to figure out how to talk about tragedy in the context of getting back to business. We see the same difficulties now, and it’s surely going to get harder to be both tasteful and compelling as we sort out a post-quarantine business landscape. Errol’s quiet, intimate, humble approach set him apart though, and really made the United campaign stand out.

    I mention this because one of the people moved by it was one of the producers of the 2002 Oscar telecast, Laura Ziskin. This was obviously the first Oscars after 9/11, which is a fact of chronology, but also speaks to a very specific time in America, which was very much still in a mode of mourning and rebuilding. How on earth do you talk about that in context of f***ing Hollywood pageantry bulls**t? All Laura knew is that she didn’t want to start with a big musical number, and she’d been thinking about a film instead, without knowing what kind of film, or who should do it. When she saw the United commercial, she said, “THAT’s the guy.”

    There was a fantastic article in the New Yorker in March 2002, just after the ceremony, called “A Movie For Everyone” that tells the behind-the-scenes story. Highly recommended for a number of reasons. One is understanding the scale of the thing — five locations, 24 hours of raw interviews (!!!), nicely condensed to just over four minutes. But also some great quotes that didn’t make it into the final piece, as well as some production insights like this one:

    The interviews were stacked up, one per half hour, and by mid-morning the schedule was a shambles. Walter Cronkite was [on camera.] Donald Trump was waiting, with mounting impatience, in the wings. Mikhail Gorbachev and entourage were trudging up the stairs. And Iggy Pop was in the greenroom.

    Those names really do mean something different in the shadow of the fallen towers than they otherwise might. The voice of traditional authority, the quintessential New York hustler, the guy who de-escalated the Russian side of the Cold War, and IGGY POP, who is the same in every context, the survivor who somehow matters more as each day passes.

    So, the next time you watch it, consider that context, too. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate what a terrific piece of work this is. One of the greatest short films anyone has ever made, imo.

    [greg janza] “Tim, all of your examples perfectly support your main points but I think this discussion of film makers as hustlers would be lacking if we didn’t mention the most infamous hustler of them all – Orson Welles.”

    I was mostly thinking about contemporary filmmakers, still making movies and still hustling TODAY, even with multiple Oscar nominations in their pockets. They’re answering the question TODAY whether filmmaking is still possible as a career, and the answer is, “Yeah, but it never gets easier.”

    But you’re right, Welles is a special case. We sometimes treat him as a joke because his demons so often got the better of him, and he never really did achieve what we’d conventionally call success for any length of time, but yeah, talk about a hustler!

    One thing that jumped out at me in reading about “The Other Side of The Wind” when it came together was seeing not ONE, but TWO different articles ranking the top 10 OTHER unfinished films in Welles’ archives, and the lists were almost completely different! “A Guide To Orson Welles’ Other Unfinished Movies” at Vulture, and “The 10 Best Films Orson Welles Nearly Made” at BFI, both highly recommended.

    There’s actually a very long section on his unfinished projects at Wikipedia that includes other of his dimensions besides directing — and it’s easy to forget how many of these there were! (And honestly, after Kane, you could argue that NONE of his projects were ever properly finished!) One of the “unfinished” acting gigs that jumped out was that he’d agreed to play Baron Harkonnen in Jodorowsky’s Dune!!!!

    Thinking about another classic-ish filmmaker from a few years later, is Robert Altman, only 10 years older than Welles. I saw him mention in an interview that he’d never gotten final cut on any of his films. He was mostly happy with how they turned out, but he felt like arguing for the right of final cut was both rude and arrogant — it’s not his money, and the people whose money it IS have surely earned the right to have a say in how they might best recoup their investment. And besides, by that point in the process, he was already too aware of the many compromises he’d had to make. What’s a few more?

    I think we can agree that are few auteurs as distinctive as Altman, so I think it’s instructive to see that he could make this distinctively visionary pictures without being a nozzle about it. I think we could all do with being a little less precious about our visions and our artistic integrity. ☺

    Another guy I think of in this context is Terry Gilliam, who had an entire movie made about his inability to get a movie made, “Lost In La Mancha” (2002). Anyone not familiar with this should definitely check it out. (My wife and I saw it in theaters back in the day. We felt we owed Terry the debt of honor of seeing this on the big screen, although we doubt he made any dough from the proceedings.) Terry couldn’t get his Quixote adaptation made because of a string of natural and personal disasters (sets flooded, lead actor dying, etc etc), and some of the craziest funding stories you’ve ever heard. Here’s the trailer, complete with a blurb from Robert Altman!

    One of my favorite film festival experiences was in 2012 at Entertainment Weekly’s inaugural Capetown Film Festival – “capetown” as in “capes”, as in a lot of superhero stuff plus other nerdy stuff that was really just starting to take off. Kurt Russell was there to talk about Escape From New York following a showing of that, Leonard Nimoy talked about the first JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, and Terry Gilliam was there to show and talk about Twelve Monkeys, one of my all-time favorite movies.

    All three of these guys talked about anything that anybody else felt like talking about (Kurt told some stories about “Ladyhawke” that still blow my mind to this day), and Terry talked about Lost in Mancha. He said, ten years later, the movie was in exactly the same state as it was at the end of the doc. Nobody wanted to pay him to make it, or anything else. He did in fact have a recent movie (The Zero Theorem, starring Christoph Waltz), but he said, unless somebody told him otherwise, it would be his last. Not because he was done, but because he couldn’t raise money. He’d keep trying, but he couldn’t find anyone who wanted to get into the Terry Gilliam business.

    Somebody mentioned the still-new-ish Kickstarter, and he made a face. Not really up for learning new technologies to beg, he said, so he’d stick with the begging he knew. Paused for a beat. “Anyone want to make a movie?” Never lost that comic timing. ☺ And indeed, has made exactly one movie since then, ironically (and amazingly) enough, 2018’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”. I don’t have anything to tell you about it, other than it took more than 20 years to make. THAT’s hustle.

    Talking about Twelve Monkeys and the different kinds of compromises you have to make to make a movie, Terry had some amazing stories about having to fight tooth and nail not just to have Bruce Willis (Bruce was ready to go, but the studio wanted nothing to do with him: his reputation was such that all three of his last pictures were considered “comebacks”, but he was by no means “back”), but also this young kid whose career had gone exactly nowhere since his abs made a splash for Ridley Scott in 1991, Brad Pitt. (Se7en would come out the same year as Twelve Monkeys, with Fight Club still a few years out.)

    It definitely brought to mind the observation from William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride), “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

    Terry also spoke about a 2011 project he’d done for an Italian pasta company, a short called The Wholly Family. He got a LOT of grief for it as he tried taking it to various film festivals, some of whom categorically rejected it because it had been paid for by a company. “It wasn’t selling out,” he told the BBC after it was accepted to a film festival in London. “The only stipulations were the film had to be made in Naples and nobody gets killed in it. I did exactly what I wanted to do.”

    Good ol’ YouTube has it. It’s 20 minutes long, in Italian, natch, and plays like a cross between Fellini, Guillermo del Toro, and an acid flashback from Baron Munchausen, which I mean as no faint praise. LOL

    He showed us the trailer, and said very much the same kind of thing. Almost all of your time making a feature is spent on the fundraising, and almost none of it on making the movie, whereas on this, he spent zero time fundraising, and 100% on making the movie.

    btw, Gilliam was on fire during this Q&A, and a handful of quotes got preserved here. Time Bandits fans will definitely want to take a look, but he doesn’t hold back about ANYTHING.

    Bringing this back to lions still making pictures that reap both box office bank and critical acclaim, Scorsese is having to find new funding partners for his second picture in a row after Paramount threw him out. With “The Irishman”, they pretty much told him to go find his own money, but seeing that Netflix opened the door to non-traditional financing and distribution, for this next picture (“Killers of The Flower Moon”), Paramount is saying that they’re done paying, but are open to deals that bring in someone else. (Read more about it here.)

    So even for old white dudes who are literally synonymous with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, easily considered as among the best of their field — what makes anybody think that they’re going to have an easier time getting paid than Ridley Scott, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Marty Freakin’ Scorsese, much less Terry Gilliam??? NOTHING is easy. NOTHING is a sure thing, not for them and not for you….

    ….but even while we’re wondering when movie theaters anywhere in the world will be open in any large numbers (and while I personally am wondering what it will take to make me excited about going to a theater with you germy slobs ever again LOL), I think the one thing we can say with confidence is that there IS a future for FILMMAKING. It’s definitely an option.

    Whether there’s a future for you in it, that’s more up to you than anyone else I think.

    Oh, and Errol Morris returned to the Oscars in 2007, with an opening short that featured 129 nominees. (All of them?) It’s not quite as strong as the 2002 piece, but I loved it then and still love it now.

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