- Friday, Oct. 26, 2012
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- LOS ANGELES
Predicting the future is a precarious proposition, but there are still some relatively reliable Hollywood harbingers come awards season--the perennial forecaster being the DGA Award in features which is uncannily accurate when it comes to who the winner of the Best Directing Oscar will be. Prior to the DGA honors on the awards show calendar, various barometers merit industry attention, the most recent being the Toronto International Film Festival which last month bestowed its Audience Award upon Silver Linings Playbook directed by David O. Russell. Toronto results often foreshadow Oscar nominations and occasionally some high-profile winners. Consider that past Toronto Audience Award winners include The King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire and American Beauty, all of which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Silver Linings Playbook, with a screenplay by Russell adapted from Matthew Quick's novel, centers on an institutionalized, depressed high school teacher (played by Bradley Cooper) who's released into the care of his parents (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver). Attempting to get back with his ex-wife (Brea Bee), Cooper's character becomes involved with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who seems as dysfunctional as he is. Dramatic and comedic, Silver Linings Playbook made its world premiere at the Toronto Fest and is slated for release in late November.
SHOOT caught up with director Russell whose feature prior to Silver Linings Playbook, the lauded The Fighter, was nominated for seven Academy Awards last year, winning for Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) and Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo), and with noms including Best Picture and Director. The Fighter also earned Russell a DGA Award nomination in 2011.
The Fighter impacted Russell's approach to Silver Linings Playbook, although the original tentative plan would have yielded a different chronology with Silver Linings instead preceding The Fighter. "The novel [by Quick] was given to me by Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella and Harvey Weinstein--a year before I even had the opportunity to make The Fighter," recalled Russell. "I had hoped to make Silver Linings first. It didn't work out that way. However, making The Fighter first definitely affected the way I rewrote and made Silver Linings Playbook--because I really loved being able to focus again on the enchantment of a specific family and neighborhood community. That was already all over Matthew Quick's novel, but I made it more personal to my own Bronx and Brooklyn relatives. Bradley Cooper also brought in a lot because he is from where we were shooting in Philadelphia. Matthew treats his characters, some of whom are dealing with heavy emotional issues and challenges, with incredible dignity and I immediately related to how he did that. Having seen some of these issues firsthand in my own family and watched the way complications and conflict can unexpectedly heighten the directness and openness of everyone, I felt very at home in the world and believed I could bring a lot of my own experiences to the telling of it on screen. I was also very drawn to the romance in the film, a backwards kind of romance that feels real to me."
(See separate Directors & DP section for a profile on David O. Russell who further discusses Silver Linings Playbook, as well as his commercialmaking experiences at Wondros.)
Life of Pi Academy Award-winning (Brokeback Mountain) director Ang Lee makes his first foray into 3D filmmaking with Life Of Pi, based on the best selling book by Yann Martel in which a tragedy at sea brings a young man (Pi, a.k.a. Piscine Militor Patel) together in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Taught by his dad that the beast is a mortal enemy of humans, Pi learns to co-exist with Parker as they are thrown into an adventurous, spiritual journey.
"I wanted the experience of the film to be as unique as Yann Martel's book," said Lee, "and that meant creating the film in another dimension. 3D is a new cinematic language and in Life of Pi it's just as much about immersing audiences in the characters' emotional space as it is about the epic scale and adventure."
As for lessons learned after having experienced that "language," Lee told SHOOT, "The master shot works a lot more significantly in 3D. Seeing all the elements with a new dimension, viewers have more to soak in. I stayed on shots longer to give the viewer that chance.
"I also learned I have to adjust performers," continued Lee. "3D picks up a lot more than 2D. I'd have a 2D monitor nearby but when I'd go back to the control room and watch in 3D, it was different. I'd tell the actors often to reduce, to pull back their performances a bit."
Lee also felt 3D brought a lot, for example, to water scenes. "In a movie like The Perfect Storm, you need the waves to be 200 feet high to make an impact on anybody. Now with 3D, at six feet high you already feel it. I had nothing over 30 feet in our storm scenes, mostly around 20 feet but that was enough to make an impression. You feel you're out in the water. You sense it."
In preparing for Life Of Pi, Lee contemplated 3D about six months prior to the debut of Avatar. He researched and tackled the challenge, later learning from Avatar. "I went in not quite trusting 3D," recalled Lee. "It's more elusive when you haven't done it before. But you get to be part of a new frontier. If something is already established and sophisticated, there's little room to create something new. You have that room with something [3D] that you can help develop while traveling on a longer learning curve. Because 3D is new, it's changing rapidly. Three years from now, they'll look at what we did [on Life Of Pi] and probably chuckle, 'Why did they do it that way?' It's that new, with more changes to come."
(See separate Directors & DP section for a profile on Ang Lee who further discusses Life Of Pi.)
The Impossible Producer Belen Atienza was in tears as she arrived in her office. She had heard a story on the radio as told in the one and only public interview granted by a family, the Alvarez Belons, who survived the tsunami that ravaged the western coast of Thailand on the day after Xmas in 2004.
The interview, though, wasn't part of any immediate news coverage. Rather it took place some three years after the disaster.
Despite the passage of time, the story was still profoundly moving, putting a highly personal, human face on a natural disaster--the earthquake and resulting tidal waves--which claimed nearly 300,000 lives in Southeast Asia. This family of five, on vacation at a Thai resort when the tidal waves hit, was separated, with the mom and oldest son not knowing if the father and two other sons were still alive. Somehow they all survived--including the mother who suffered major injuries--before being miraculously reunited.
When her office colleagues saw a tearful Atienza, they found out about the story she heard on that radio station in Spain. Filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona recalled his immediate reaction. "It impacted me emotionally. It was so much deeper than what we first saw in terms of immediate news coverage when the tsunami hit. I knew I needed to tell that family's story in a film," he affirmed.
Slated to be released in December, that movie is The Impossible. There were many hurdles to overcome to realize The Impossible, including elements inherent in the story. The technical aspects of recreating a massive tsunami alone were daunting. Plus there was the challenge of attaining the balance of real-life horror with the triumph of the human spirit, an equilibrium between the emotionally devastating and the emotionally uplifting.
On the latter score, Bayona observed, that the Alvarez Belons' physically and emotionally demanding journey was buoyed by acts of compassion, courage and kindness that family members exhibited and encountered during the bleakest moments of their plight. The kindness of strangers, the kindness to strangers, the bond between a mother and son strengthening during unbelievable adversity all underscored what Bayona described as "a quiet dignity," which was something he wanted his film to capture.
Bayona indeed captured that and more, so much so that The Impossible has come to be regarded as an Oscar contender. The awards buzz is gratifying, said Bayona, "because every single person involved in this film did their best, working under an extra pressure to try to do justice to a true story. Technically, the most iffy challenge was creating this massive tidal wave, to depict an entire tsunami. A year of preparation went into this--myself, the cinematographer [Oscar Faura], the production designer [Eugenio Caballero], the visual effects people [including VFX supervisor Felix Berges and special effects supervisor Pau Costa]. We decided not to use CGI because that wasn't real enough looking. I can't say enough about what everyone put into this film to make things work within a challenging budget. And the performances [including the parents played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor] were everything a director could wish for."
(For more on The Impossible, see separate Directors Profile on Bayona, including insights into his collaborative relationship on the feature film with screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez and the circuitous career path he took to the director's chair.)
Beasts of the Southern Wild Beasts of the Southern Wild marks cinematographer Ben Richardson's coming-out party in the feature film world. And the film has indeed come out in strong fashion on this year's festival circuit, most notably garnering: the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award in the Dramatic category at Sundance; the FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury-Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival; and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, among other honors.
Richardson's self-described contributions to the film included perhaps most notably "relinquishing control," letting the movie's world of Southern Louisiana "sort of author things for you. Control is an illusion anyway. You need to let the world present you with opportunities. That can be a hard way of working but that's what Benh [director Zeitlin] and I embraced."
Director Zeitlin indeed embraced the people of South Louisiana, inspired by their strength in the face of difficult, at times dire circumstances. He cast a pair of locals--Dwight Henry, from a New Orleans bakery, and Quvenzhane Wallis, from Honduras Elementary School--in the lead roles of the hero characters, a father and his six-year-old daughter,.
Wallis' character Hushpuppy is a special little girl indeed. She lives in a forgotten, impoverished yet fiercely independent bayou community isolated by a sprawling levee. Her imagination and sense of place and purpose at a young age enable her to deal with daily life as an adventure, until her reality is changed by a raging storm and her father's failing heart. The drama plays like a fable, marking an auspicious feature film directing debut for Zeitlin.
As for the cinematography, Richardson related, "It follows Hushpuppy's perspective. This is her world. It wasn't fantastical to her. It was her reality. Yet there's a sense of discovery from her perspective and we wanted our audience to share in that wonder. We didn't go wide much--that felt too presentational, like you were trying to point things out to the audience. What we wanted to do was to see the world through Hushpuppy's eyes."
(See separate profile on Ben Richardson in Directors & DPs Section.)
Cloud Atlas Describing film as a collaborative art form sounds cliche, though undeniably true. And that axiom was taken to the nth degree for Cloud Atlas, which required a meticulous coordinated effort creatively, logistically and in spirit among three directors--one being the duo of Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy),the other Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).
"They saw themselves as one director," observed John Toll, ASC, a two-time Best Cinematography Oscar winner for Legends of the Fall in 1995 and then Braveheart in '96. Toll served as DP on the half of Cloud Atlas being helmed by Andy and Lana Wachowski while Frank Griebe was DP on Tykwer's portion of the film. Griebe has shot all of Tykwer's films. By contract, Cloud Atlas marked Toll's first collaboration with Andy and Lana Wachowski.
The Wachowski duo and Tykwer also combined on the Cloud Atlas screenplay, based on the best-selling novel of the same title by David Mitchell. Having multiple directors handle the film was necessitated by the scope of the project which encompasses six stories spanning six different time eras ranging from the 19th to a post-apocalyptic 24th century. Cloud Atlas explores how the actions and consequence of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, present and future. Action, mystery and romance weave dramatically through the story as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future. An all-star cast is headed by Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
Toll related that what sounds like a division of labor was in the big picture a coming together of three directors, two cinematographers and assorted other artists and teams. Toll recalled the extensive pre-pro in Berlin where the directors set the tone for a unifying vision and voice. All three directors worked closely on initiating the design for each individual story, the look and nature of the sets and costumes, all the visual elements. Every creative decision was made on the basis of collaboration among the directors.
"We were all there to make a single film. We had two separate crews--the directors, two art departments, two sets of assistant directors, two DPs and others--sharing office space in Berlin, constantly seeing what everyone else was doing," noted Toll. "When production began, the Wachowskis' unit, which I was a part of, went to Maiorca in Spain. Tom Tykwer's unit went to Scotland. While working in two different countries, Lana, Andy and Tom were constantly communicating, talking on the phone, seeing each other's dailies essentially on the Internet. They came together as one director and this continued throughout the making of the film."
Cinematographer Griebe noted that he did a lot of tests before Toll came onto the project. "Then we did some tests together, talked about our approaches, the feel we wanted to create for the film," said Griebe. "We saw their rushes, they saw ours. In the end--with a great job by editor Alex Berner--it came out as one film with one vision."
Griebe has known director Tykwer for 20-plus years. "I shot his first film and we've worked on everything together ever since. He got me involved early on in Cloud Atlas, way before there even was a project. He told me three or four years ago that I had to read the novel, that it was amazing and maybe we could make a movie out of it."
Griebe's filmography with Tykwer includes such features as: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer which earned a European Film Award for Best Cinematographer, and Gold from the German Film Awards for Best Cinematography; Run Lola Run which also garnered a Film Award in Gold for Best Cinematography; and Heaven, which copped a German Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography.
(See profile of cinematographer Toll in Directors & DPs Section in which he discusses the prime reason behind the decision to shoot Cloud Atlas on film.)
Meanwhile offering an editor's perspective on Cloud Atlas was Berner who too saw the three directors come together for a unified vision. "The movie is complex but the key was that the directors did not look at it as six different stories telling one big movie or being told in one big movie. They instead saw it as one movie being told by six stories. The focus was always on the big picture."
Logistically, though, the challenge was multi-layered, related Berner. "From a technical aspect to work with two large teams on a very complex project, both shooting simultaneously, was quite a lot to deal with. There was such a sheer amount of material. There's the complexity of this vast, great and unbelievable project with so many different genres--drama, action, romance, humor. The overall story is big and emotional and conveyed in an unconventional manner--you get a scene from one story and then jump to the next story while still striving to keep every story going."
Quipping that he is likely "the first editor who's worked with three directors at the same time in one room," Berner found the process exciting and challenging. He likened the experience on Cloud Atlas to being in a laboratory experimenting and trying out different options. He noted, "We spent six weeks together cutting the first version, and then another three weeks to do the final movie. The three directors were wonderful, allowing me to work in every direction to find what was right."
Berner landed the opportunity to cut Cloud Atlas based in part on his collaborative experience with director Tykwer on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which won a Film Award in Gold for Best Editing at the German Film Awards in 2007. Among Berner's other notable credits are Resident Evil, The Baader Meinhof Complex and the lauded The Debt. He is next slated to work on Jupiter Ascending, written and being directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski.
Berner continues to maintain Digital Editors Postproduktions, a Munich shop launched 20 years ago, one of the first in Europe to have the Avid. He started out cutting spots and movie trailers at the studio, diversifying eventually into international features.
This is the first of a five-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar to run in SHOOT's November, December, January and February print issues, concurrent >e.ditions and on SHOOTonline.com.
For The Road To Oscar, Part V, click here.
For The Road To Oscar, Part IV, click here.
For The Road To Oscar, Part III, click here.
For The Road To Oscar, Part II, click here.
And for Oscar season related profiles of directors and DPs, click on David O. Russell, Ang Lee, Juan Antonio Bayona, John Toll, ASC, and Ben Richardson.