Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Don't Mind If I Do by George Hamilton

George Hamilton. Don’t Mind If I Do. New York: Touchstone Book, 2008.

Acting can be physically harmful, according to the autobiography of actor George Hamilton. Years of rehearsing and acting in films featuring swordfights and bullwhips---including 12 hours straight of learning and practicing the use of the bullwhip---led to a torn rotator cuff and knee damage. In addition, he broke four ribs while filming a pirate parody. Still, he was asked and did appear as a dancer on the TV series “Dancing with the Stars”, even though his injuries sometimes made walking problematic. He competed against Rachel Hunter, formerly married to singer Rod Stewart, which he saw as fitting as both Hamilton and Stewart had both dated Britt Ekland and Liz Treadwell. His agent insisted appearing on “Dancing with the Stars” would be a good career move, especially since younger viewers were not as familiar with Hamilton.

Hamilton’s dance partner was Edyta Sliwinska. Hamilton knew some dance fundamentals having taken dance classes as a child. Plus, Hamilton even once taught dance, yet he passed himself off as a teacher only by taking the class just before the class then taught.

Hamilton was the oldest contestant and knew the younger dancers could be fancier dancing.

Hamilton’s mother auditioned at MGM and despite fighting off sexual advances from the man doing the casting, she won a role in the movie “Father Knows Best”. Yet, she objected to what she saw as a misrepresentation of Southern women in her role. When she refused to portray her part as written, she was replaced. Her movie career was over. His mother then decided, instead of trying to become a star, she would marry one instead. They moved to Beverly Hills. Hamilton attended Hawthorne elementary school where he first learned about acting. His mother dated a few celebrities, including Howard Hughes. Who did not impress her. Meanwhile, Hamilton was impressed with actors, even saving a cigarette stub he saw Clark Gable toss. Money ran out, though, and the Hamiltons left California.

Acting in a high school play, Hamilton experienced the terror of having his mind go blank while on stage. His panic reaction was to being speaking fake Russian. This only confused the other actors. Hamilton continued improvising by using hand signs. Although the curtain quickly came down, the audience reacted with laughter. Hamilton’s teacher recommended Hamilton become a comedic actor, and wrote a letter of recommendation suggesting that.

Hamilton later went to Hollywood and won some film roles, following by some small roles on television. This followed with steady work at MGM, earning $500 a week in 1960.

Hamilton met and worked with many film celebrities. He saw a happy Judy Garland only hours before she would attempt suicide. He met Jack Warner, whom he described as “the most uncouth man in an uncouth business.” Warner yelled, during a match with Chiang Kai-shek, “smash it to the Chink”, a comment that led to Warner Brothers films being banned in China while Chiang Kai-shek was in power.

Hamilton dated Lynda Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson. He faced criticism as a draft dodging playboy. He was denounced on the U.S. House floor by Rep. Alvin O’Koniski who noted that none of the men drafted from his district were from families earning over $5,000 annually while the President’s daughter was dating a wealthy actor with a draft deferment for financially supporting his mother. Vincent Canby of the New York Times noted how Hamilton earned more money than President Johnson was paid.

President Johnson strongly hinted that Hamilton should enlist in the military, stating “Georgie, it’s not enough to do good. You got to look good. And we don’t look good right now.” Colonel Tom Parker even advised Hamilton to “sign up”. Instead, Hamilton chose his film career and signed to film the movie “Jack of Diamonds”. He and Lynda split. She later married Charles Robb who was later elected Virginia’s Governor and U.S. Senator, leading Hamilton to speculate if that couldn’t have also been his fate.

Hamilton continued meeting and working with many film people. He recalls Cary Grant from his LSD phase predicting that everyone would be traveling to the moon and proclaiming that “nobody impersonated Cary Grant better than me.” He knew Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager after his days of showing Tom Parker and His Dancing Chickens. Hamilton learned the secret to getting chickens to dance in public was to put them on a hot plate and turn the heat on.

Hamilton dated Elizabeth Taylor, who had strict bodyguards who even slammed a door on a photographer’s hand and began driving off until he yielded a camera that had been used to take unauthorized photographs of Taylor.

The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger. The Man Who Heard Voices or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and Lost. New York: Gotham Books, 2007.

Manoj Night Shyamalan wrote and direct several successful movies, including “The Sixth Sense” which grossed over $2 billion worldwide. His script “Lady in the Water” failed to garner the full support of his Disney executives. He decided to find other investors, deliberately avoided hiring superstar actors, and gave an eccentric cinematographer a major break. Shymalan, an auteur filmmaker, created the movie he envisioned. Unfortunately, audience support was less than expected, causing the book publishers to consider, by the title of this book, the film a failure. Interestingly, the author disagrees with his publisher’s title. While the film was not as big a success as Shyamalan’s previous films, he believes Shyamalan will bounce back as one of the top directors in the business.

David Bordwell notes that filmmakers can become so engrossed in their work that they become unaware of the flaws contained within their films. He notes that critics tend to be more negative to those with past successes. “Lady in the Water” may have been held to, and failed to meet, their higher than standard critical standards. Bordwell observes the movie had problems, yet these blemishes may have been overblown.

Shyamalan has both greater control and takes more responsibilities over his movies than do most other directors. He is also known for creating a family atmosphere with co-workers, actors and crew, when making a film.

“The Lady in the Water” was based on a story Shyamalan invented to tell his daughters as a bedtime tale. He found transforming the story to a screenplay daunting as it was, to him, a personal story. He was not satisfied with his first screenplay draft.

Shyamalan had been pleased working for Disney/Touchstone. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner had proclaimed Shyamalan;s “Unbreakable” as “the best Disney movie in 25 years.” Shyamalan’s films had been released under the more adult Touchstone label. Shyamalan intended “Lady in the Water” as a family film to be released under the Disney label.

Shyamalan had previously produced a film “Wide Awake” for Miramax, an independent-run company owned by Disney. Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein did not like the movie and told Shyamalan that he was not and never would be an A-list director. Even though Shyamalan was contracted to direct two more movies for Miramax, Shyamalan considered himself as fired by Weinstein. He wrote “The Sixth Sense” partially in spite to show Weinstein he could make an A-list movie. Shyamalan spent long hours going over every detail. He debated with himself, and followed advice that “sometimes what doesn’t make sense works”. He even removed the film’s famous line “I see dead people” during some rewriting before he put the line back in. Shyamalan demanded $1 million minimum and a guarantee to direct in return for selling the screenplay. Since he was not under to contract to Weinstein as a screenwriter, he sent the screenplay overnight mail to other film companies. He did send a copy to Weinstein, but by U.S. Mail. Shyamalan used bravado, in part fueled by his desire to get away from Weinstein, by calling the studios and telling them to put aside time to read the script. Shyamalan was known for his screenplay “Stuart Little”, so he was a known writer even if the calls still were a little unusual. Four studios quickly passed on the first day. Yet, New Line bid $2 million. David Vogel at Disney was convinced to quickly read the script, which he did. Vogel bid $3 million for the script plus $500,000 for Shyamalan to direct it. Shyamalan accepted Vogel’s bid. Weinstein did not object and asked for a share of profits for loaning Shyamalan as a director.

“The Sixth Sense” was a success and with that one movie, Shyamalan was on the A-list of directors.

Shyamalan’s subsequent movie “Unbreakable” had $249 million in ticket sales worldwide followed by “Signs” which grossed $405 million in ticket sales, followed by “The Village” which had a $256 million gross, as well as associated DVD sales and broadcast rights which additionally added tens of millions of dollars.

Some critics began hammering at Shyamalan. A.O. Scott of the New York Times declared his movies as ones that “never gives us anything to believe in other than his own power to solve problems of his own posing.” Roger Ebert stated “The Vilage” was “based on a premise that cannot support it.”

Shyamalan sent copies of the fifth draft of the script “Lady in the Water” to 23 people, including his wife, nanny, agent, music scorer, etc. He enclosed a detailed questionnaire which he uses in rating all his scripts. Shyamalan computes the results and compares the results to their reactions to his other scripts. Some feedback he received on “Lady in the Water” was the humor misfired. It also didn’t appeal as well to females. His nanny found it confusing and offensive to religious Christians. The sixth draft was the one that was sent to the studios.

Shyamalan planned to invest most of his liquid assets of $30 million into creating half ownership of “Lady in the Water”, which he planned would cost $60 million to make.

Shyamalan discussed “Lady in the Water” with Disney executives. He argued with them over their claims they didn’t understand the movie. Shyamalan believed he was no longer being treated with the deference he expected. Nina Jacobson of Disney found the script troubling, especially for a proposed Disney movie, as there were frightening mutated creatures in the script. She worried about Shyamalan’s plans to act in one of the major roles, since Shyamalan had little acting experience. She also thought the movie has too much dialogue and not enough action. The main problem she had was the story is myth, which she found difficult to follow. Her responses was “I don’t get it”, to which her Disney boss replied “neither do I”. Shyamalan was enthused by the Disney criticism and he strongly defended his script. Shyamalan then concluded that Team Disney didn’t appreciate his individualistic ideas. Disney offered to give Shyamalan $60 million to make the movie without their involvement. Shyamalan was upset as he liked the Disney executives and he wanted their cooperation and not just their money. He felt a rejection of their faith in him. Shyamalan tol his agent not to have studios bid for the script, as he feared possible resentment from the top bidder. Instead, he told his agent to show the script only to Warner Brothers. They bought the script.

Shyamalan initially had a list of actors in mind to star in “Lady in the Water”. He wrote the role thinking Tom Hanks would be best for the role. Paul Giamatti was on his list, but he considered Giamatti the least likely on his list for the role. Tom Cruise was interested in the lead role, yet Shyamalan thought his fame would overshadow the movie. Shyamalan changed his thinking about his list as he feared audiences would have preconceived notions about the actors on his list, except Giamatti. Plus, Giamatti had a record in past movies of portraying unlikable characters in a way so audiences liked him. Shyamalan sent the script to Giamatti and was disappointed to learn Giamatti did not rush to read a part, especially since he knew it had been written with him in mind. Giamatti was slow to respond, during which Shyamalan considered Kevin Costner for the role. Finally, Shyamalan heard from Giamatti, who had finally read the script, and who responded “dude, I am so “Lady”’. Giamatti had the part.

Shyamalan hired a cinematographer, Chris Doyle, who was known for being options to a director. They had worked together once before and Shyamalan wanted to recreate a dark feel that had been produced before. Shyamalan hired others to work on the film who had experience working on non-studio films and who were able to think for themselves.

In casting actors, Shyamalan was noted for quickly selecting actors based on intuition. He sought mentally balanced actors willing to be part of his filming community for up to six months of filming and editing. The role of Lin Lan was considered by many as impossible to cast as Shyamalan envisioned until Cindy Cheung auditioned.

Shyamalan thought Cindy Cheung was perfect for the role. He also thought she was an enthusiastic actor who would jump at the chance to have a lead role in one of his films for the SAG minimum. Shyamalan was disappointed when her agent asked for $1 million. While she settled for $100,000, Shyamalan had to separate his thoughts of her from his thoughts on her agent.

Shyamalan wanted to film “Lady in the Water” within the Philadelphia city limits, yet logistical problems prevented that from happening. Instead, a building in Green Lane, outside Philadelphia, was used.

Shyamalan treated visiting Warner Brothers executives gingerly. Warner had given him a $68 million budget. He hid some scenes from them he feared might raise too many questions. Although Shyamalan worried that he saw fear in their eyes as they toured the set, he was pleased when they left proclaiming “you wowed us.”

Mary Beth Hurt added dialogue not in the script. Shyamalan was not happy with this, but he knew with enough takes he’d get the scripted scene he desired.

The film editor carefully raised questions she had about the story’s logic. Shyamalan responded defensively.

The marketing for the film was presented as a tease that didn’t tell much about the film.

Editing was done in a barn on Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania farm.

The first day of shooting did not go well. A child actor was unable to perform a relatively simple lick and slap maneuver and would need to be replaced. Throughout the shooting, the Director of Photography (DP) seemed to have a drinking problem, sometimes causing shots to be missed. Shyamalan seemed comfortable with this behavior, which if it weren’t for the closeness of the cast and crew, would likely had led to harassment charges in other workplaces. The Director of Photography was known for kissing bellies and grabbing genitalia.

Shyamalan believed that providing good food on the set kept people happy. Plus, he enjoyed eating a lot. Shyamalan also, once a week, drew the name of a cast member’s name from a hat and rewarded the winner with a trip to Europe, Hawaitt, and once a two week trip to the Far East.

During shooting, Shyamalan was pleased with Cindy Cheung’s performance. He sometimes felt hers was the only role that was working. The film was shot darkly, which make it more difficult for a camera to stay focused. Warner Brothers was happy with the dailies, especially since they were steadily producing them.

Shyamalan was concerned about a scene where he initially wanted a handheld camera. It would make the scene appear like a documentary. He was worried if his Photography Director would be sober enough to get the desired shots. If he hired another to shoot the scene, he feared insulting the DP. He solved the dilemma by bringing in a Steadycam, which could get the shots almost as well yet was easier to handle.

Shyamalan tested “Lady in the Water” before 60 viewers. The group tested it better than any other test group had rated his previous movies.

Audiences tended to find their views were closer to those of the Disney executives. Many found the movie confusing. Some in the film industry condemned Shyamalan’s unwillingness to make a film with his contracted studio, Disney, even after they had agreed to put up the money, just because the executives stated they didn’t understand the script. The film cost Shyamalan his director’s right to insist on final cut approval. The author believes he will get that back.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Alma Hitchcock by Pat Hitchcock O'Connell

Pat Hitchcock O’Connell and Laurent Bouzereau. Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man. New York: Berkeley Books. 2003.

This book, written by the daughter of director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma, is about her parents. Alma was one of the few people Alfred listened to most closely about professional matters. She was experienced in the film business before they met and together they developed their knowledge about the film industry. Alma became Alfred’s closest confidant and was involved in screenwriting, casting, and providing Alfred with directorial advice.

Alma is credited with screenwriting and continuity credit in several of Alfred’s films as Alma Reville, her maiden name. She also had numerous uncredited roles in his work.

Alma began working at the London Film Company at Twickenham Studios as a film rewinder. She then became a film editor, which then involving cutting and splicing film by hand. She asked for more responsibilities and was promoted to cutting from film negatives, working on sets as a floor secretary, and then working simultaneously as an editor and on continuity. At that time, editing consisted mostly of splicing entire scenes together. Later directors such as Alfred Hitchcock would being using close-ups and more complex visual techniques that also required greater editing involvement.

Alma learned a lot about filmmaking from her work. She worked with and learned from numerous people including director D.W. Griffith, actor Lillian Gish, then-actor Erich Von Stroheim, and actor Noel Coward. She also played small roles in several films.

Alma then got an editing position at Famous Players-Lasky British Producers Ltd. It was there she met Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred first drew inter-titles and drawing for silent movies before moving to becoming an assistant director. Alfred walked past Alma for two years without every looking at her. Alfred would later explain he didn’t want to approach her until he had a better job than hers. The studio closed and Alma was out of work for six months until Alfred called and offered her editing work on a film where he was the assistant director. Alma first turned down the job, stating the pay was too low. They later reached an agreement.

Alfred and Alma first worked together on the 1923 film “Woman to Woman”. More working together followed, including work in Germany where both learned to speak German for their positions. Alfred was concerned when he ran out of money while making the movie and didn’t want it known this was his first movie as director. Alma begged the production people for more money and received it.

Alfred’s second move, “The Mountain Eagle” filmed in 1925 but released in 1927, had Alma as assistant director. It was a financial failure.

The next film Alfred directed, “The Lodger” was the first film Alfred considered as a Hitchcock film. He relied on newspaper headlines, clocks, and calendars instead of inter-titles when he could, as he felt that kept the action of a silent movie progressing better. Yet it was so unique that the studio thought it was awful.

Alfred and Alma married in 1926, at a time they feared Alfred’s directing career was over. Afterwards, “The Lodger” was given a limited released. Audiences liked it and positive words about it spread. Alfred’s career rebounded. In 1927 he directed four movies including one he co-wrote as well as the one of the four on which Alma worked with him, “The Ring”.

Alfred directed “Blackmail” as a silent film and then added sound. It was released in 1929 as both a silent and sound movie. It is considered the first British-made sound movie.

Numerous film projects followed for Alfred and Alma. Alfred liked to employ what he called the MacGuffin, which is something a villain wants but knowledge of not known by the audience. He also liked to give villains charm and manners.

The Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood. Alfred directed “Suspicion”. It’s original ending with a murder was changed so no murder happened due to poor audience reaction to the original ending. Alfred listened to audiences more than to critics.

The author recalls a memo Alfred received complaining, during the filming of “Lifeboat”, that Tallulah Bankhead was noticeably not wearing underpants. Alfred replied “I don’t like to get involved with departments disputes. I can’t tell if this is the responsibility of wardrobe, makeup, or the hair dressing department.”

Alfred’s Hollywood movies were very successful. He also hosted a TV series. Grace Kelly starred in several Hitchcock movies. When she left acting to marry and become Princess of Monaco, Alfred chose a new leading female star while watching Tippi Hedren in a TV commercial. She passed a screen test and landed the lead to “The Birds”.

Alfred was invited to speak at a White House dinner with President Lyndon Johnson. Alfred drew laughs by stating, after Woody Allen spoke, “I always thought Woody Allen was a national park.”

The author recalls her parents getting one of the first VCRs. Two of the most technically proficient filmmakers in history were baffled by the instructions and getting the VCR to work.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Screenplay Workbook by Jeremy Robinson and Tom Mungovan

Jeremy Robinson and Tom Mungovan. The Screenwriting Workbook: The Writing Before the Writing. Hollywood, Ca.: Lone Eagle Publishing, 2003.

A screenwriter, before beginning to write a screenplay, need to develop characters, a plot, subplot, and find emotions and emotional shifts that the audience should experience.

A screenwriter should conceptualize a screenplay, consider its genre, characters, time period, how much a movie could cost to produce, what its target audience should be, the story content, the writer’s own interests, and then develop an impression of these thoughts so far.

Character development should include names for the characters. The names could project particular meanings or emotions. Consideration has to be provided to the themes the characters will project. The characters could have quirks, interests, vices, strengths, goals, sexual proclivities, regrets, etc. that are a part of the screenplay.

Character relationships need to consider how the characters interplay with each other, the challenges and difficulties in these relationships, their mutual interest and beliefs, and the goals of each in these relationships.

The plot structure has to consider exposition, increasing action, conflicts, climax, falling actions, resolution, and the ending.

Plot points and the turnings points have to be considered.

A character needs a character arc. A challenge posed to a character has to be acknowledged, faced, struggled with, and defeated.

A plot chart considers plot points, plot structure, and the character arc.

Screenplays need to consider their time period, location, story element, characters involved, the visual look, important actions, dialogue, and revelations.

Ask the Pros Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran

Howard Meibach and Paul Duran (ed.) Ask the Pros: Screenwriting. 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals. Hollywood. Ca.: Lone Eagle Publishing Co., 2004.

This book poses questions that are answered by numerous screenwriting experts.

Diane Dank states that great screenplays have been ones where she felt the emotions they portray.

Arnold Schulman warns against writers strictly following formulas.

Gregg McBride notes screenwriting presents a visual presentation. It does not have to be well written, fancy prose. It has to tell a good visual story.

John Fasano recommends a good plot that holds up and is logical.

David Goyes has gotten ideas from dreams. John Fascano recommends interviewing all kinds of people and reading obscure magazines for interesting story ideas.

Robbie Fox finds good characters emerge from people he’s observed and that he finds they are people with which others can identify.

David Goyes believes good characters emerge from their actions.

Craig Moss develops a beat sheet and outline before writing.

Robbie Fox researches people and often writes from inspiration from observed events.

Craig Moss and Stephen Suseo recommend “Story” by Robert McKee. Robbie Fox believes McKee’s book has been a bad influence on other writers. Gregg McBride recommends “Screenwriting 434” by Lew Hunter and “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by Dave Trottier.

David Goyer suggests a write tackle a subject about which the writer is passionate.

Barry Gold states when pitching an idea that one should be able to state the idea in one sentence.

Larry Brody warns that the film industry is not really searching for new writers and new ideas. The industry wants dependable writers and doesn’t want to risk using new, untested writers. New ideas are risky as it can’t be known how large a market will buy a new idea.

Larry Brody suggests people with new ideas to film it themselves, even if it is with $500 in equipment and using friends, and then using Internet media to show the new ideas.

Stanley Brinks advises that producers seek big idea concepts.

Ken Kokin, a producer, states he doesn’t use readers. He reads scripts himself.

Stephan Palmer warns that most scripts she’s seen did not have a strong basic concept.

Rio Hernandez states it is not likely that a script recommended by a reader is ever developed. Most ideas start at higher levels than readers.

John Truby recommends a screenplay pick a specific genre for a screenplay. The hero and heo’s opponent have to fit that genre’s framework.

Linda Cowgill states a character’s backstory is important but not critical. It could be shown using just a few details,

Dyann A. Rivkin states a screenplay needs well developed characters and a state that an audience willingly will suspend belief and feel is real.

Linda Cowgill recommends writers try to create a unique view for an already popular theme that audiences desire.