- LOS ANGELES
Editor Patrick J. Don Vito’s latest collaboration with director/writer/producer Peter Farrelly is quite a departure from what’s been their comedic norm. But this new turn in some respects wasn’t all that surprising to Don Vito who recalled telling his wife when he was working on the Farrelly TV pilot for Cuckoo that he’d love to see the director get a chance to tackle drama.
“Cuckoo was a crazy comedy but Peter’s conversations in the cutting room showed a real depth and understanding of characters,” related Don Vito. “His notes were so good and on point that I felt his talent could successfully translate into a different genre.”
Don Vito’s assessment proved prophetic as evidenced by Farrelly’s Green Book (Universal Pictures) which introduces us to Dr. Don Shirley (portrayed by Mahershala Ali), a world-class African-American piano virtuoso who’s about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a street smart driver and protector, Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who knows how to get out of a jam. Though they’re from different worlds, the two men connect and form a bond while encountering racism and peril during an era of segregation.
Don Vito and Farrelly too have bonded over time. Prior to Cuckoo, Don Vito cut Movie 43 for Farrelly. And it’s apropos that they together have broken new dramatic ground together, although Green Book has its share of humor, largely rooted in the differences between the two protagonist characters--and how they respond to the situations they encounter.
Still, choosing Don Vito to edit Green Book required a bit of salesmanship so that the studio powers that be would approve. Timing was fortuitous in that Don Vito had come off of cutting Three Christs, a not yet released feature directed by Jon Avnet and starring Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage and Walton Goggins. The drama, which is also a ‘60s period piece, centers on a psychiatrist who has three patients who all think they’re Jesus Christ. “It’s a drama with comedic elements,” said Don Vito, “but I think the dramatic story helped convince the studio I could handle Green Book.”
For Don Vito, the biggest creative challenge posed by Green Book was “the balance between comedy and the drama. You didn’t want the comedy coming out of a joke-y place. Instead it had to emerge naturally, out of what’s happening in the scene. The actors would improv, writers on the set were contributing new dialogue as we were shooting. We had to take all these elements, shape the story and set the proper tone.”
Don Vito worked closely with Farrelly in that shaping process. “He’d be shooting during the week and I’d be cutting,” related Don Vito. “He was too busy during the week to come in. But he’d come in during the weekends when we’d discuss and further shape things. Then I’d get a whole week to get my stab at it. I would cut it as scripted. And then I’d take things apart and do alternate versions. I wouldn’t always show those alternates right away. But they would help me see things as we constructed the film and built sequences. They all connected in the end, with Peter and I honing it. The first cut was two hours and 40 minutes without credits. The final cut was two hours and 10 minutes with credits.”
Don Vito also credited the music supervisors on the film, Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, for making key contributions to creating the period piece. “We had one expensive Sinatra song (‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’) but had to fill out the rest on a tight budget. Tom and Manish came up with more than a hundred songs we could afford. These were songs I hadn’t heard before that enabled us to populate the film with period music, to properly set the tone and time. The songs we placed worked so well with the story. The research they conducted to get these songs was terrific. The songs weren’t big hits but they said early 1960s throughout.”
In addition to Farrelly (whose commercialmaking/branded content production house roost is Caviar) and Avnet, Don Vito said he’s been fortunate to work with such directors as Steven Brill, Judd Apatow and Jay Roach. For the latter, Don Vito served as an additional editor on a pair of Austin Powers movies. Don Vito said that being in the cutting room every day with Roach and Mike Myers was a treat, adding that the experience taught him a lot about comedy.
Fast forward to today and Green Book, noted Don Vito, taught him a lot about everyday life. “We’re in a hard time right now with people really angry at government and each other. We need to reach out to people who are not in our own socio economic groups, to friend them, to get to know them on a different level. That’s how you address the anxiety and anger. We need to stop blocking people and start talking to them. We’re better off if we can empathize with and relate to others.”
While Don Vito was balancing drama and comedy in Green Book, visual effects artisan Alex Bicknell found himself cast in a dual role, balancing the responsibilities of visual effects producer and VFX supervisor on director David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King (Netflix). In fact Bicknell noted that Andy Fowler, director of VFX for Netflix, coined the term “superducer” to describe the hybrid mantle of supervising and producing.
Bicknell felt that being a “superducer” came naturally to him. “I’ve done both and my experience has been that a supervisor has to do some producing. You cut the fabric to match your budget--so as a supervisor I was often producing.”
As both a supervisor and a producer, Bicknell said prominent among his tasks on Outlaw King was to give the filmmakers as much freedom as possible. “I had a meeting with David and Barry (cinematographer Ackroyd) and I told them that I wanted them to shoot the movie as if there were 3,000 horses in the climactic battle. I didn’t want them shooting with a concession to visual effects in mind. I wanted them to shoot the way they would shoot a cinematic scene--move the camera the way they wanted, do whatever they felt was right for the scene. Otherwise, by conceding to visual effects, the shooting loses its naturalism. Now if there’s something I absolutely needed them to do in order to accommodate the effects, which happened a few times, I’d ask them to pull it back a bit. But as often as possible, I wanted them to feel free to do what they do best.”
This approach dovetailed well with Mackenzie’s preference to steer away from “effects-y looking shots,” said Bicknell. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should relative to visual effects. David wanted to keep the camera real, as close to naturalism as possible.”
Outlaw King tells the true story of Robert the Bruce who transforms from defeated nobleman to outlaw hero during the oppressive occupation of medieval Scotland by Edward I of England. Despite grave consequences, Robert seizes the Scottish crown and rallies an impassioned group of men to fight back with ingenious guerrilla tactics against the mighty army of the tyrannical King and his volatile son, the Prince of Wales. Filmed in Scotland, Outlaw King reunites Mackenzie with Chris Pine (Robert the Bruce); the two collaborated famously on the acclaimed Hell or High Water.
Bicknell recalled being impressed by Hell or High Water. In fact, after he watched the movie, he got a call that same day from Netflix about Outlaw King. Bicknell was drawn to the prospect of working with Mackenzie, later meeting the director in London.
Looking back on his first collaboration with Mackenzie, Bicknell described him as “a very passionate director, very focused and detail-oriented. Getting to know him was most important--getting to know his tastes, his reactions, how he likes things to be done.” Relative to the director’s attention to detail, Bicknell noted that one of the characters in the movie was Scotland itself. And Mackenzie wanted his depiction of the country and the medieval era to be historically accurate. “Rather than plunking a castle into a field, we went to a place in Scotland where there is or was a castle and created it there. That was important that a castle exist where it had a geographical reason to exist.” And effects were deployed to augment and extend castle locations and environments.
That pursuit of realism also translated into avoiding stages and bluescreen, continued Bicknell. “When you are knee deep in mud, you have a different look in your eyes. Actors were getting into the mud, falling in, getting wet and cold. It was proper filmmaking that was true to the story. So many of the locations we went to in Scotland had been unchanged for hundreds of years. It was a privilege to apply our filmmaking and effects to these places.”
Bicknell tapped Method Studios to help bring Outlaw King to fruition on the effects front. He worked with Method VFX supervisor Dan Bethell after earlier teaming with him and his coterie of talent on the Visual Effects Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road. In addition to work on citadels and castles, effects duties on Outlaw King included enhancing crowds, creating CG horses, fire and gore--all having to be historically in line with 14th century Scottish materials, agricultural elements, weaponry and on assorted other fronts. Effects had to be complex yet invisible.
In addition to Mackenzie and DP Ackroyd, Bicknell collaborated on Outlaw King with, among others, production designer Donald Graham Burt, an Oscar winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and costume designer Jane Petrie, a BAFTA nominee and Emmy winner for Netflix’s The Crown.
There’s something about a daunting challenge that appeals to screenwriter David Magee. He, for example, took on the adapted screenplay for Life of Pi, a property many said couldn’t be translated to film. As it turns out, Magee earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination in 2013 for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. It was Magee’s second career Academy Award nod, the first coming eight years earlier on the strength of his adapted screenplay for Finding Neverland.
Fast forward to today and Magee’s screenplay for the recently released, Rob Marshall-directed Mary Poppins Returns (Walt Disney Studios) is shaping up as another notable work--again with a high creative bar to meet, particularly since the original Mary Poppins film is an all-time classic, beloved by generations.
In addition to writing the adapted screenplay, Magee teamed with Marshall and producer John DeLuca on the screen story. The film, of course, is based on the “Mary Poppins” stories by P.L. Travers.
Magee took on the challenge of Mary Poppins Returns due in large part to his high regard for Marshall, a Best Director Oscar nominee for Chicago in 2003. “Rob knows musicals backwards and forwards. If it were any other director, there would be a lot of second guessing as to whether or not this would work. But if anyone could do a fantastic job with Mary Poppins, it would be Rob. I met with Rob and John and we discussed some basic ideas. Within 15 minutes, it became apparent we had the same passion for the first film. We were completing each other’s sentences and talking the same language. By the end of that meeting, I knew I wanted to be involved.”
Magee observed the “real challenge” posed by Mary Poppins Returns is that it’s not a sequel. “We had to find a new story and journey for these characters. We had to prove to Disney and ourselves that we had a story to tell. The biggest question we faced is why would Mary Poppins need to come back.”
Marshall, DeLuca and Magee met a couple times a week to answer that question and flesh out the story, joined regularly by composers/lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittmann. “The five of us over the course of three or four months sat around, talked about ideas, sketching out possibilities,” recalled Magee. “I would go off and write what we had discussed, which would then elicit questions, notes back and forth to everyone. Marc and Scott worked to carry the story over into music. They would say we stop here and then I would take it up from there. We came out with a 35-page treatment of what the film would look like. We showed the treatment to Disney initially and they gave me approval to go write it. From there evolved the script.”
The storyline had the Banks’ children, Jane and Michael, in the original Mary Poppins movie now grown up and dealing with their own problems--and as is the case with adults, they have forgotten the magic they believed in during their childhood. Mary Poppins (portrayed by Emily Blunt) helps them rediscover that magic. Blunt heads a cast that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Ben Whisaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke.
Magee related that Marshall and the ensemble of talent he assembled in front and behind the camera were a joy to work with. “We had a group of people who understood intuitively the magic of the original film and what we were trying to capture with this one,” affirmed Magee. “The script came together better than I could have imagined. And then to see everyone take that work that much further brought me to the point where I get emotional every time I watch the film, which captures something I felt when I was young. And the film does so without winking or being ironic or overly sentimental. It’s an honest depiction of that magic we all long for when we’re young and forget when we’re older.”
Professionally Magee found magic in Mary Poppins Returns, bringing him “the emotional satisfaction of trying to do justice to such a classic film and to take that story forward.”
This is the ninth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.