Friday, June 25, 2010

A Summer Film That's Good For You (Cyrus)

Stuck in the middle of this summer of junk food cinema Cyrus is fresh garden mix of funny. It's simple movie filled will subtle moments. Little micro bursts of emotion we so often miss in larger louder films.

The plot is rather simple. A sad schlub of a man finds his second wind when he hits it off with Molly. But Molly's 21 year old son Cyrus is threatened by the new man in his mother's life.

In other hands this would have become a run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy starring Gerard Bulter and Jennifer Aniston. But it's more than off-kilter casting that makes Cyrus different.

It's about watching John C. Reily arch his eyebrows ever so slightly. It's the way Marisa Tomei's eye crinkle when she smiles. It's the quivering lower lip of Jonah Hill. It's a movie filled with generous close ups and awkward pauses. It's a movie that breathes.

If you have any interest in writing or directing I implore you to go listen to latest Creative Screenwriting podcast. It features a long interview with Jay and Mark Duplass, the writing directing duo behind Cyrus.

Like their movie, the Duplass brothers are endearingly honest. As they say on the podcast it took them years, years of making crap to find their voice. Here's a few of the gems from their interview.

$3.00 - That's what it cost to make their first successful short This is John (watch it here). Just their parent's video camera and the cost of a tape. But it was that short film (shot unrehearsed) that got them into Sundance, and led to the films The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Cyrus.

Story and Characters - That's all that matters for the Duplass brothers. Technical stuff, the set, the lighting and all the rest come a distant second.

The Vomit Draft - When they sit down to write their first script they have a unique method. You could call it the Vomit Draft. The brothers first agree on the basic structure of the film. They have a series of cue cards. Then Mark sits down with a dictaphone and talks his way through the first draft of the script. That's correct, he "writes" the movie orally. This has a couple advantages. One, you can't go back and fixate over anything, so the process keeps you moving forward. Two, your body naturally tells you when to move on.

Don't Fixate Over Dialogue - Since the Duplass brothers use a lot of improv in their films, they never get too hung up about the words, since the script is just a starting point.

Long Walks - When they hit an impasse during shooting, they leave. The two brothers walk off the set and talk, until they solve the problem.

Don't Move On Until You Feel Comfortable - As one of the brothers says, "If you don't know if you got it, you didn't get it." He's talking about the pressure to keep moving to the next scene during shooting. But he says, you know if you've got something and you can't let the pressure to keep on schedule to affect your movie. (Of course when you operate with lower budgets it's easier to stay in control. More money = more pressure.)

"Fuck all the noise and ask yourself what do you want to see next?" That's Duplass philosophy on filmmaking.

Don't Direct the First Take - No direction or blocking for the first take. The surprises that occur are about 25% of the film.

Shoot Chronologically - More expensive but works better for the actors who are improvising.

No Marks - No blocking for the actors, the action is shot documentary style.

"Are you Gung-Ho and brave enough, to come and say 'we don't know' with us and try and figure it out together?" - What they ask of the actors.

Skinny Movies - The Duplass brothers like skinny movies. 5 characters. 86 minutes.

The Script Isn't a Piece of Art - The Duplass brother spoke about how when they were working with Fox Searchlight, their screenplay began to change from a subtle comedy to something more overt. Part of the process was how the studio execs were influencing them to write scenes that read well on the page. But the Duplass style of comedy doesn't read well. The really subtle moments that ring true don't work on paper. So it's worth remembering, the script is not a piece of art. It's just a blueprint to get you to the point where you're making the movie.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Pity the Fool (A-Team and MacGruber)

I've been thinking a lot, far too much about the new A-Team film. Now let's be clear. This is a film based on a show that was about as realistic as the GI JOE cartoons of the same time. And the new A-Team continues the legacy of lunacy.

There is a memorable scene (SPOILER) where the guys attempt to slow a plummeting tank by firing at the rapidly approaching ground. Now I'm no Mr.Wizard, but I don't think that's the way the law of physics work. And then again, who cares? Because instead you get Jessica Beil muttering "They're trying to fly that tank." And it's funny. But ridiculous. Which is the essence of my A-Team conundrum.

There is a lot of fun stuff in the A-Team. Bradley Cooper as "Face" has the kind of charisma that could grow into Clooney-esque proportions. The same cock-sure attitude, the man who smirks in the face of fireballs. Another high point is Sharlto Copley. This is his first big role after playing Wickus in District 9. No Afrikaner accent here. Sharlto is playing "Murdock," the court jester of the bunch. His energy is manic and like Bradley it's infectious.

These guys make the A-Team fun. The team clicks, the back and forth, the cross talk make being in the middle of the crew a fun place to be. But the action is insane. The set pieces feel like they were hatched by the bastard love child of Michael Bay and the demented geniuses behind the Crank series.

Which is what frustrates me. The A-Team looks like an action pic. They're using the same vocabulary (car chases, fireballs, firefights) but there's no tension. It's a Noel Coward play drenched in Redbull and topped with gunpowder.

But then last night, I figured it out. The A-Team is a remake, but what they've created isn't an action's a sitcom. An incredible expensive (& loud) sitcom. Call it Four's Company.
Once I made that mental adjustment, all my issues; the lightness of tone, the unbelievable finale...they all melted away.

Really in a way the A-Team is the kind of movie MacGruber wished it could have been. Look at the similarities. The both start in the desert. Both feature heroes who excel at making elaborate devices out of
scraps. Both use familiar action cliches to amuse the audience. It's just that the A-Team is actually funny.