Tag Archives: cinema

Filming Osmosis: A Conversation with Declan Quinn

Chekhov is about time—passing it, mostly.

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He never cuts to the chase, only hints at it coming from a long way off. Then there’s the waiting, the sitting around and rattling on; it’s old-country mumblecore. André Gregory’s workshop production of Uncle Vanya, performed sporadically through the early nineties for audiences of a dozen or so lucky guests at a time, got that just right. As delivered by Wallace Shawn and friends, Chekhov’s dialogue was stripped of formality, stripped of pomp, played at the level of room tone at 10 p.m., after the dishes are cleared. It took them years to get there—years of letting the time pass and waiting for something to happen. Instead of having his actors master Chekhov’s people with strong preconceived intentions, Gregory reversed the flow, allowing the characters the osmosis time to master his actors. Director Louis Malle was one of the lucky few to see Gregory’s Uncle Vanya. And he wanted to film it. But how would he touch the bubble without breaking it? It was a tiptoe situation, like dismantling a house of cards and putting it back together again, and it was up to Louis Malle and cinematographer Declan Quinn—further constrained by budget, time, and the crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre—to figure out. Here, Quinn reveals how a single camera, a few bungee cords, and some very long takes combined to bring about the ghost art of minimum impact filming, and make Uncle Vanya into Vanya on 42nd Street.

Sam Wasson: How did you get involved with Vanya on 42nd Street?

Declan Quinn: Fred Berner and Alysse Bezahler, the producers, introduced me to Louis. That was it, really. Obviously, it was very exciting for me to be meeting with Louis Malle. I was a big fan of his films. That first meeting may even have been a phone call. We discussed a fairly loose approach to the thing—that he’d like to run the scenes long and shoot Super 16, and that it was very low-budget. We had to approach it in very broad strokes in terms of lighting and camera. He said we were going to be shooting in this old abandoned theater, a decadent space for a play about decadent attitudes. He gave me some ideas about a natural soft look. We went into prep fairly quickly.

SW: With a space like that—a landmark literally falling apart around you—how free could you be?

DQ: We really couldn’t attach to any walls or anything, so we had to be freestanding with our lights. We would up-light certain theatrical features, certain plasterwork and interesting details in the ceiling or along the columns around the stage. Lights were on the floor for those kinds of things, on dimmers. And then for the actors, we tended to work on the floor more kind of movie-style, where we might have a 12×12 or 8×8 diffusion with a light pushing through it or a light bouncing, and then some bigger cloths to shape the light a little bit. The good thing was we had enough space to get back twenty feet or so and create a nice, soft, general light for scenes like the beginning of the first act, where it’s supposed to be dayish. And then when we got in around the table, it became a little more enclosed, and the lighting became more closed, as if it’s coming from lanterns, from practicals. The New Amsterdam was just a wreck at the time and had been leaking for years, as we discover in the beginning of the film. It was cold and damp in that theater, a real chill that gets into your bones after a while, but it was an exciting place to work. Originally, we wanted to work up on the stage, because it would have given us a bigger backdrop, but we weren’t allowed there because there was a lot of ironwork suspended above that wasn’t safe. God forbid anything fell we didn’t want to be under it. So we staged it over the orchestra pit and what would have been the first bank of seating on the main floor. [Production designer] Eugene Lee built a bridge across the orchestra pit so that we could make entrances and exits from the stage to the area we were working in. In fact, when we started shooting, Disney came in to take photographs and start planning the refurbishing of the theater.

SW: As the play goes on, you begin to lose a sense of the theater. It gradually disappears until you’re in a kind of limbo with the actors.

DQ: We wanted to create a more neutral space, more existential, in the void.

SW: The transitions are so elegant, often imperceptible, starting with the actors meeting out on 42nd Street and following them into the lobby, into the theater, and then suddenly you cut behind them to give us the audience, and suddenly you realize the play’s on. It’s beautiful.

DQ: That was Louis’ masterful vision of it, a conscious thing on Louis’ part. He built all that into the dialogue before the play starts. All that talk about how tired they are, so the tone wasn’t broken. He wanted you to see how contemporary Vanya was. I think he was able to make that point really well by surprising us. There’s hardly any difference between 1990 or whenever we shot it and a hundred years earlier, in Russia.

SW: All that prerehearsal talk, was that ever put down on a page?

DQ: I don’t know for sure. I know they certainly talked about it before, but we didn’t shoot many takes of that kind of stuff. It was on the fly. We were like, “Oh, let’s follow Wally on that one” or “Let’s follow Julianne [Moore]” on that one, so I don’t remember there being a script for any of that stuff—of course, until the play starts.

SW: The long takes really bring out the collaborative nature of the production.

DQ: A 16-mil camera can hold a little over ten minutes of film, so the takes would be usually a full mag, ten minutes, so we would back up and maybe overlap something if we were moving on. Say, if we wanted to pick up five minutes into the second act, we’d probably back up two or three minutes to get up to speed and then run seven or eight minutes until the film ran out.

SW: Was the decision to go with Super 16 mostly practical?

DQ: Yeah, I think that was one good reason. You had a lighter, more agile camera that could do ten minutes per load. You could do the same with 35, but it would be two to three more times expensive for the film and the camera would require a heavier support, probably a dolly or a crane, and it just wasn’t that kind of film. We thought if we could make it handheld and kind of looser and not feel too rehearsed, it would serve the project better. And I also discovered about a year or two before a way to hang the camera off elastic bands—like a long, long bungee cord—that gave a weightlessness to the camera and allowed me to go for ten minutes of moving the camera pretty freely without getting too shaky.

SW: Bungee cord?

DQ: Basically, a couple years earlier, my key grip, Kevin Smyth, had worked on a music video with a Japanese DP. He came to me one day and said, “I gotta show you something.” He was using fifty feet of surgical tubing, which is what doctors in the hospitals use for clearing people’s stomachs and stuff like that, basically a latex, thick-walled tube that has an amazing amount of elasticity. Usually I’ll double or triple it for a 16-millimeter camera and then make it as long as possible. If it’s fifty feet long, it’s more like a hundred and fifty feet when it’s elasticized. Our key grip was able to get a piece of truss and arm it over the space we were working in and counterweight it at the back, and we were able to hang the elastic over front. We just used a carabiner to attach the tubing to the handle of the camera. So we had maybe a twenty-foot drop from the truss to where the camera was hanging. I’ve used it ever since.

The interview continues at Criterion.com

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Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

Real, Funny

Flipping through the index in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book about the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.)

At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.

But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:

Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness. 

Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.

Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective andtendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.

How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?

Please continue reading reading excerpts from my new book, Paul on Mazursky, at Altscreen.

Another Year

As Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest wonder, came to a close, I was met with a horrible feeling. I was never going to see these people again. Good people, irritating people. It didn’t matter. They were people, and I was never going to see them again.

What a master Mike Leigh is! Who else can bring an audience to pity, reject, and completely forgive a fictional character in the short space of two hours? Simply inspiring pity would be enough, but the full cycle! Continually shifting our alignment between complicity and remove, Mike Leigh, with imperceptible finesse, demonstrates (once again) his total control over his people, their stories – and utterly without bravura style – his medium.

It’s British and verbal and the camera doesn’t do much, so critics call it “theatrical,” but Another Year is unmistakably cinematic. Yes, what transpires in those long masters could be set on stage, and a hefty handful of the film’s more actorly moments stretch easily to the very back row, but what’s between those unmoving wideshots – the strategic inserts and reactions Leigh layers in like Miracle-Gro – offers, by cutting, a deepened view of the story as only the movies can. Via the well-placed close up, in other words, Leigh is refracting his people through his people. The effect is one of total knowledge.

But without the right look from the right actor, the right close-up will never be. I know audiences will leave the theater talking about Mary, Leslie Manville’s attention-grabbing character, but the person I will never forget is Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen with paper-thin lightness and ingenuous off-camera ease, this is, male or female, the performance of the year. I promise. There is great acting that you notice and great acting that you don’t, and Another Year is bursting at the seams with both kinds, but it’s Ruth Sheen – whose work is notably devoid of juicy “moments” – who shows, once again, that the most affecting performances, like the most affecting cinema, disappear as they appear. (Johnny Depp can do a lot, but I wonder, can he, like Sheen, just be?) That right there is the real real stuff. Meryl Streep may be the actor’s actor, but Ruth Sheen, we now know, is the actor’s actor’s actor.

Goodbye, Jill Clayburgh

I remember Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.

As Erica Benton – a New York woman coping with life after divorce – she conveyed a calm, even serene intelligence uncommon in American movies. Naturalistic and sensual, Jill Clayburgh appeared to be both brighter, and more striking, than our own friends and family and at the same time, exactly like them. That’s how she managed to be so effective as Erica Benton, who, in Paul Mazursky’s essential film of 1978, conveyed the experience of divorce quite plainly, in modern and very real terms. It’s that rare case of a polemical film free of polemic.

Part of what made – and continues to make –Mazursky and Clayburgh’s interpretation of the experience so resonant is that it didn’t read as an interpretation. They didn’t have an angle. They didn’t cop to “dramatizing” the situation with clearly defined, movie-made conflicts and resolutions. Nor did they get wrapped up in ideas or values. They just gave it to you. As the film’s tagline says, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is…an unmarried woman.” That’s it. The only thing Mazursky wants is for us to feel.

Perhaps that’s what makes the loss of Jill Clayburgh so personal. Remembering the film is not like remembering a movie, but like looking back on a conversation with someone you used to see a lot of. Someone you saw through a difficult time (God, that was a while ago! I wonder how she is? I keep forgetting to drop off the coat she left at my apartment.) Were Jill Clayburgh a movie star, or a conventional beauty of the kind we see too much of today, she would not have had that effect, and An Unmarried Woman would feel more like something we saw than something that happened to us.

A few years ago, I had a chance to speak with Ms. Clayburgh about the film, namely about how she and Mazursky managed to evince that feeling of happening to us. “I don’t know,” she said. “Think of the women and the way they dressed. I mean, you know, when you think of women getting together now in film, and I won’t say what, but they’re all dressed to the nines. Who the hell are they dressed for? They’re all so chic! We all looked good, but we weren’t done up. We were just…wonderfully…in our own characters.” That’s what lent the movie, and Clayburgh’s performance, the force of the zeitgeist. Wading in truthfulness, trusting integrity of observation, they happened to catch a wave. “There was something about Erica that was so interesting because she didn’t ask for any of this,” she added. “Feminism was in the air, but it hadn’t trickled down. It was a bit rarified. That makes Erica very vulnerable and kind of…I don’t know…like someone you know.”

I know her and I miss her.

Last Night at The Rome Film Festival

It was like a scene from Modern Times. I was standing on line for the Rome Film Festival’s opening night screening of Last Night, unceremoniously packed in with some of the rowdiest filmgoers I have ever met, when, after about twenty minutes, I realized I was in the middle of an all-out protest. I had no idea over what. For a moment, I tried to negotiate myself out of the mob, but once they started moving toward what I hoped was the cinema, I figured staying with them would keep me from getting lost all over again. And now that I know why they were gathering, I’m glad I joined them, if only for a moment.

Hundreds of writers, directors, actors, and other employees of the Italian culture sector had turned out to protest government funding cuts that have taken, and will continue to take, a serious toll on film industry workers. They broke through the crowd of media and civilians that had lined up – presumably, to get a look at Keira Knightley or Eva Mendes, stars of Last Night – and spread themselves out, most of them sitting, over every square inch of red carpet, chanting and orating all the while.

It was quite a sight. Those of us who had already made it into the auditorium, watched it all on the big screen inside of the theater, which, in slightly uncomfortable contrast, was beginning to fill with the type of well-groomed movie people who probably don’t have to worry as much about their employment. Then again, maybe they do.

After a significant delay, the lights dimmed. Last Night’s stars and filmmakers were paraded in, a few words of introduction were made, the jury was introduced, and the lights dimmed further. The film began.

Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington), a young and affluent Manhattan couple, are the sort of loft-living folk we see a lot of in today’s New York movies – in other words, people you want to be, but are glad you aren’t. Things start to fray, at least officially, when Joanna confronts Michael about a crush he may (or may not) be having with Laura (Eva Mendes), a business associate he’s been going out of town with.

What follows is a vaguely familiar riff on the jealousy ronde. We’ve all been there, in movies and in life, and for a good part of Last Night it’s tough to figure out why we’re back. But I was glad we were. Keira Knightley, who seems to grow more intelligent with every movie, takes such fearful pleasure in running into and then going out with Alex (Guillaume Canet), her ex-boyfriend, that watching her try to make up her mind, one forgets, at least temporarily, that there is still another half of the picture waiting in the wings. That half – the will they or wont they dance of Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes – lacks the spark of real attraction, the quiet glinting looks and bashful smiles Knightley and Canet plugged into the moment they appeared together on screen.

But my mind kept going back to the rally on the red carpet. Were they still holding out?

The Dolce Life

The best view of the red carpet, I realized, was from above.

Browsing the bleachers a full hour before even the press arrived for The Rome Film Festival’s world premiere restoration of La Dolce Vita, I decided, finally, on a front row seat next to a shrunken woman of about seventy. Surrounded by blankets and snacks and cigarettes, she looked like she had been waiting all day. “No Scorsese?” she asked as I sat down beside her. (Scorsese was scheduled to introduce the film.) I told her it was still early. He’d be here. Disgusted, she threw up her hands. “No Scorsese, no cinema!” I’m not quite sure I agree, but it’s hard to disagree.

Fifty years after La Dolce Vita’s original release, the film has been restored from its original widescreen negative for the clean up of a lifetime. The premiere, which was itself a thing out of Fellini – from Nino Rota on the loudspeakers to the paparazzi on the floor – saw an avalanche of beautiful stars that all looked liked twins, save for one. Early in the parade, before things got too frenzied, a black car stopped as close to the carpet as it possibly could, a policeman flew to the door, opened it (slowly), reached in, and out came a cane, a foot, and then the rest of Anita Ekberg. The place went nuts.

As the new stars began to appear, with their smiles and waves and tastefully torn clothing, the mighty Ekberg limped wryly toward the press line, accentuating every labored step with a grande sigh. She had a lot of carpet to walk, and watching her fight it, prodding it with her cane and laughing all the while was a thrill even the most immaculately restored La Dolce Vita would not likely upstage. Moreover, Ekberg was the only woman on the red carpet with a purse slung over her shoulder, as if she had just came from lunch. How could you not love that?

I moved inside the theater to watch the rest of the arrivals on the big screen, in close up. There I rediscovered Ekberg’s entire face. Tickled, I found her jack-o-lantern smile, enormous eyes, and high-pointed eyebrows told of a darker, wittier person than I remembered from the movies. But I have a good defense: after the Trevi Fountain scene, all you can do is remember the Trevi Fountain scene.

The camera then drifted away from Anita (what would have Fellini have done with a Steadicam?) to Scorsese, and the entire theater erupted in applause and cheers, and then immediately hushed to hear what he had to say. At that moment someone behind me whispered, “You don’t have to be tall to be big.” In other words, No Scorsese, no cinema.

Once the little giant entered the building, things started to move quickly. There were a few introductions and some clips before Anita Ekberg was brought out on stage (with purse) to remember the filming, which she did with sardonic glee. I’m not sure, but she may have cackled. In fact, Ekberg got so gleeful she didn’t even see the cortege of stagehands that had gathered to signal her time was up. So she went on, gleefully, and as her enthusiasm grew, they moved closer, until finally the cluster was on stage, practically standing beside her. Even then she didn’t see them. So deep was her Fellini trance, they had to literally, almost physically, interrupt her sentence to bring her back to the present. It was glorious.

Then Scorsese. Watching La Dolce Vita, he said, is like the dream sequence – Guido freefalling – that opens 8 ½. “You feel like you’re flying,” he said. “At times it’s frightening or even terrifying. But at the same time it’s liberating.” In other words, no Fellini, no cinema.