Coming Home


This movie, wow.

Slight spoilers ahead, be warned.

It’s kind of a Romantic Comedy, set in the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

The Fonda-Voigt couple (smoldering chemistry) has so many obstacles to overcome. I mean, their first meeting is when they collide and she gets soiled by his urine-filled colostomy bag.

Many more obstacles follow: she’s married and she still loves her husband. He carries around the darkness of the war.

Oh, and, having been wounded in combat, he’s mostly in a wheelchair and can feel nothing from the waist down.

Their lovemaking scene is spectacular.

There is a spare simplicity about Ashby’s films. This one might be my favorite. He had a damn good run throughout the 70’s, but I think what this has, that perhaps Harold and Maude and Being There didn’t (don’t get me wrong, they’re damn good, too), was a phenomenal screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy).

Great ending, too. Everyone, in their own way, comes home.

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Watching “Gandhi” again


Gandhi ★★★★½

Attenborough’s film is an epic that follows in the footsteps of David Lean’s great films. Like them, “Gandhi” requires quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. So, in Lawrence of Arabia, we are to believe that Anthony Quinn is Bedouin, and that Omar Sharif is a Russian in Doctor Zhivago. Here, we are required to believe that it’s normal that Indians speak English to each other. If you cast aside that aspect of the film, there are many things to appreciate in it.

My favorite sequence is the one on the train. Gandhi discovers “the real India” by looking out the window of trains moving through the Indian countryside. The score by Ravi Shankar is every bit as bright and beautiful as his work for Ray on Pather Panchali. And there is brilliant writing in the scene. A 3-hour movie with this kind of subject needs to have some levity. Here, it’s in the form of a fish-out-of-water moment, where an Anglican priest is asked to “move closer to God” by sitting on the roof of the moving train. There’s a lot of physical humor in the scene. It’s a delight.

Another favorite moment is when Gandhi is released from jail. But he needs to borrow taxi fare from his jailer. Exquisite.

When watching the film, I keep asking myself how they did it. How on earth did they manage the epic feat of this film. In the bonus content of the DVD, it is revealed that without the help of Indira Gandhi, the film never would have gotten made. That’s a humbling thought. A lot of ducks had to line up for it to come together. Without the help of the Prime Minister herself, the movie does not happen. It’s a maddening thought, and also, thank goodness for her help. It’s wonderful that the film exists.

Kingsley. Talk about a breakout performance.

The film swept the Oscars that year, most notably snubbing another great film, Tootsie.

Very enjoyable to revisit this film, which I believe TCM decided to show in commemoration for MLK Day in the US.

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Orson Welles – His Last Interview (1985)


“I had a lot of options open. Everybody does. Anybody who has enough sense to make a movie can make a lot of other things, and I should have left right away because I saw right at the beginning that, like Vegas, the odds are against the player, and are by the nature of moviemaking. What’s wrong with Hollywood is that it’s just another marketplace, and the marketplace is always the enemy of the artist.” … “I’d rather be remembered as a good guy than a difficult genius.” -Orson Welles

This interview, from Entertainment Tonight I believe, really speaks to me.  He has so much clarity about himself, his mistakes, and his regrets.  It’s both inspiring and cautionary.

Full Welles Interview

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Low Budget Filmmaking Case Study: Brick (2005)


Brick was Rian Johnson’s debut feature film.

It took accolades at Sundance in 2005 and was picked up for distribution by Focus Features.

This film kickstarted Johnson’s career.

A USC grad, Johnson had been doing a lot of odd jobs: editing two horror features, Disney Channel promos, and working as the AV tech at a school for handicapped kids.

Meanwhile, he was doing everything he could to get Brick off the ground.

His agent spent a year sending it out. Everyone loved the script, and no one wanted to make it. But their rejections were encouraging: “We can’t wait to see it.”

Along the way, one star came aboard and it looked like they’d get $3M needed to make it. Then that star dropped out, and the money vanished.

It would be a six year wait.

The $3 million film was actually made for $450,000. How? It’s what Johnson calls the deep, dark secret: any film made at that budget meant that people were not getting paid, or were getting much less than what they normally would make. Neither he nor his producer were paid.

They shot 35mm, which is very impressive, and it shows. The film looks gorgeous.

Their schedule was 20 days.

And they caught a big break with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was a child star, but he had not yet had much success as an adult in movies. They caught him at a time in his career when he was available and hungry.

They spent three months rehearsing. That time was instrumental to the success of the film.

The film ultimately sold for $2M. All of the investors were paid back and made money, which is rare in independent film.

(Note: These facts above come from an interview of Johnson by Jeff Goldsmith of the Q&A podcast, copyright Unlikely Films, 2012.)

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Grateful for Tonight’s Showing of Un deux trois quatre

Un deux trois quatre on France 3 tonight

Un deux trois quatre on France 3 tonight

Tonight, a film I made will be shown on a French television network, France 3. My film, Un deux trois quatre, will be on at just past midnight (00:35). It screens in a series with three other films in a theme of shorts called AMOUR, ETC.

One of the challenges of making films is getting them seen. We had the good fortune to sell this one to France Television. I am grateful to my producer Julien Monestiez for making it happen. I am also glad that France 3’s programmer, Aurélie Chesné, chose to include it in their lineup.

As filmmakers, we are only in control of what we make. After it’s finished, if people don’t feel moved to champion our work, then it doesn’t get seen. I’ve had films like this. I felt they deserved bigger audiences, but that connect just didn’t happen.

I feel a strong sense of gratitude because I know that this film is a tough sell. At 18 minutes, it’s longer than most short films. It’s a visual film, with at times, very little dialogue. There are no explosions or car chases. In fact, my hope was to make a quiet film, one where the viewer has to lean in to pick up on all the details. Despite these potential challenges, France 3 jumped on board, and are presenting it tonight. It makes me happy. And it gives me hope and courage to stay in the game and keep making my movies.

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Projection à Paris le 19 juin à 17h45 au Grand Action


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Anecdote from the making of Heaven’s Gate

May 11, 2014 at the Grand Action in Paris, Isabelle Huppert and Vilmos Zsigmond came to present Heaven’s Gate.

Pierre Filmon, the moderator, asked, “What was the hardest and easiest part of making this movie?”

Vilmos had this to say:

There was a day that was very tough for Isabelle, because she had to be in the water.  It was Montana, and the water was very cold.

By the time that scene was shot, it was lunchtime.

Much to his surprise, Michael Cimino had organized a small, private lunch, in a secluded spot, under some trees.

It was just the three of them: Cimino, Vilmos, and Isabelle.

Vilmos turned to Isabelle, with a glimmer in his eye and said, “It was chicken, wasn’t it?”

His words were wistful.

She smiled back at him.

She said it was.

Then Vilmos confided that this was the best shooting day he can recall in his entire career.  Having this lunch together under that tree.

He added that it was longer than one hour, and they got a little behind that day.

But it was wonderful.

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Vilmos Zsigmond in Conversation

Cimino on Heaven's Gate

On October 12, 2013, at the Grand Action in Paris, I attended a talk with renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It was moderated by Pierre Filmon. Most of the exchange focused on his work on three films: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and Deliverance.

Q: How did Cimino select you for The Deer Hunter?
VZ: He saw my previous films and liked them visually. Michael had done a lot of commercials. So had I. He thought we could work well together. He’s an incredible director. I learned so much from him. We got along very well from the beginning. He’s someone who is very sensitive of images. And I felt that Deer Hunter should be made with beautiful images, little dialogue, lots of visuals. Our collaboration was very much like two jazz musicians improvising. He’d suggest something, and I would run with it, and vice versa. Michael knows a lot about cinematography. But he let me do my job. He never told me how to light. That offered me a great freedom that is rare in this business. A director of photography needs to be very sensitive to the story. His work is about telling the story through images. It should never be about showing off.

Q: And about Heaven’s Gate? Any stories?

VZ: There’s a scene at daybreak, just after the battle scene where you see bodies on the ground. To get that, we woke up at 4am, travelled one hour to the location. We set up three cameras, two of which I operated. It was easy because I had one camera with a wide angle lens on a crane and another one with a zoom lens that I operated myself. So we waited for the sun to come up. It started to rise. Things were looking good. And it kept rising. And things were looking even better. And I said, Michael, we have to shoot now. He said, No, wait. And I thought it was a mistake. There would be too much light and reflections that would ruin the shot. And a few minutes later, Michael moved in front of the cameras. And he started to dance a Native American dance, chanting for the wind to come. And incredibly, a wind did start to blow. And it gave us the dust you see in the shot. The shot was much better than with just the sunrise. Never before or since have I worked with a director who could improve upon even what nature had offered.

Another thing you may notice is the scene of the Roman battle. There are about 60 extras. Michael spent a half-day casting them individually. He was looking for good faces. All of them came locally from Montana, but were of Eastern European origin – Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Serbian. Such was Michael’s attention to detail.

I love movies that are about something. I don’t like filming violence or special effects. I love movies that are about people. And it starts with a great story. Deer Hunter was a great script. It’s hard to shoot for six, eight, twelve weeks on a film that you don’t love.

Q: And about Deer Hunter?

VZ: It was a much more complicated shoot. The Vietnam scenes were shot in Thailand. But right when we landed, there was a putsch and a change of government. All our shooting permits were cancelled and had to be redone, and that took us three weeks. Things were not going well between Michael and one of the producers. You needed someone who could collaborate with Michael. I don’t mean who will tell him what he can or cannot do. I mean, someone who can sit down with him, understand what he wants to do, then help him to do it. This producer was replaced by someone who worked better with Michael. Who was on his side, instead of being against him. We lost a lot of time with the permits, then with this change of producer, but we still almost stayed on budget.

Michael struggled and fought hard throughout the edit. But in the end, he came out of it a hero. The film won Best Picture.

For Heaven’s Gate, Michael wanted to surround himself with people who could help him. We made a very good film, but we went more than double the budget. The schedule also went way over. United Artists was not happy. But Michael felt that the Oscar meant that he deserved to do what he wanted. The public and the critics hated the film. It was a real problem. A brilliant film, with no success. You have to remember the context. 1979-1980. The United States economy was doing well, there was no unemployment. Why would you want to do a socially conscious film at that time?

Years later, the film has been rediscovered by audiences. Festivals have nicely welcomed it in recent years. At the time, they wanted you to make a 100 minute film. This film at 100 minutes is garbage. All the beauty is lost. With the longer cut, you get to see what Michael intended. His genius. This cut is 3 hours and 37 minutes. To me, that’s too long. I think it would be ideal at 2 hours 30 or 2 hours 45. It would be a better film. A battle scene may have magnificent shots, but seeing the same thing conveyed in half the number of shots could improve it. Even at this length, I love the film, and I forgive its length. I think audiences do, too.

Q: What has Cimino been up to since? What’s he even made since 1986 and The Year of the Dragon?

VZ: Even I would like to know. He doesn’t return my calls. If you see him, please tell him that I would love to make another film with him.

Q: How did you shoot the Russian roulette scene in Deer Hunter? Did you have a shotlist? Certain intentions?

VZ: No shotlist. A lot of improvisation. Michael rehearsed a lot with the actors. Actors loved him because of the freedom he gave them. And we were working with five of the best actors. Deniro, Walken, Streep… We would look at the rehearsals, then look for what to shoot. Master, close ups.

The idea was not to stylize but to be as realistic as possible. Light the faces and add shadows coming from the palm trees on the other side of the walls. I would have lit it the same way if we’d been in the studio.

The eyes are important to me, and I always have a little lamp above the camera just for the eyes. I want to see the eyes.

It was difficult particularly because of the floating barge that we were on. Depending on the water level, it would rise eight feet or fall five feet. When the sun was not out, we used HMI’s, which were new. My gaffer had bought them, and we built parallels to put them on. It rained a lot, and we’d have to wait for it to stop.

Shadows are the most important thing for me. I light in order to make the shadows.

In the digital age, people think you don’t have to light, that it’s all lit. But without light and shadows, there’s no mood.

Q: And Deliverance?

VZ: When Boorman had heard about my filming during the revolution in Hungary, he thought that I was tough and courageous, and that I wouldn’t be afraid of a river.

Q: How did he hear about you?

VZ: He was looking for someone, and he saw rushes of Mr. and Mrs. McCabe (Altman) on the Warner Brothers lot. I was shooting in a very different way. I was flashing the film, making it dirty, using old stocks, bad stocks, making it look a hundred years old. Boorman thought if I could do something like this, then surely I could do his film.

We didn’t speak much after we’d decided some key things. We spent 4 weeks on location – scouting and learning how to canoe. In the last 2 weeks, the actors came and also learned to canoe. It’s really hard to keep your balance in a canoe. By the time the actors arrived, we seemed like pros to them. They got the hang of it. John decided not to use stuntmen. The actors would do all of their own canoeing. This choice really affected the film a lot. It meant I could shoot them however I wanted, in long shot, in closeups. It gave a realism.

I didn’t light the river much. And we decided something crazy – to never shoot when the sun was out. We wanted it to be overcast, because that fit with the color palette we had decided on. It would give suspense to just have three colors: the green of the forest, the white reflections off the water, and black. We killed all the other colors by desaturating the Technicolor. Too many colors work against the mood.

How to shoot the river was an important question. We decided it was a question of level. We needed the lens to nearly touch the water, to just be 2 centimeters above the water. Sometimes we had the camera in a waterproof box. We shot with a long lens, to better follow the moving canoe, giving speed and energy, without the need for a dolly.

Deliverance was my first time using an anamorphic lens. What I like is that it’s not too sharp. Today’s digital cameras are way too sharp. They are sharper than what the eye sees. I have made three or four movies on digital, and I always diffuse a lot of light. I work the same way as I would with film.

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A History of Civilization in 10 Minutes

So, maybe you could not make it to Clermont-Ferrand this year for the festival.

Well, the good news is, you can see one of the most remarkable films here – for free, on your computer.

It’s called Big Bang Big Boom. It was made by an Italian artist who calls himself Blu.  It’s a kind of History of Civilization in under ten minutes.  And people are calling this his magnum opus.

Though he has a huge following, Blu is totally unconcerned with money – he gives his films away to anyone who will watch. And each of his films has well over a million views (Muto for example has close to 9 million hits!).

Blu also retains a lot of mystique.  Like Banksy, he is someone who has retained complete anonymity, refusing to be interviewed or to attend festivals.

This is really impressive stuff.

When you can, take a break, click on this, and enjoy.

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Best Film School Today

As a young person wanting to enter the film industry, one of my big questions was always whether or not to go to film school. And if so, which one?  There are plenty of stories about people who learned everything on their own.  But I felt I would like the help of some formal training and in the end, I did a very theory-laden degree from the Sorbonne. An NYU screenwriting summer school class complemented this experience.  It gave me great exposure to films from around the world.

Before deciding to do that course, I inquired about a few other well known schools:

FTII in Pune, India – where many prominent people in Bollywood went

NYU – where Spike Lee, Joel Coen, Martin Scorsese and countless other legends trained

FAMU – in Prague, Milos Forman’s alma mater.

Lodz (pronounced Woodge) where Polanski and everyone from Poland went. This five year program even attracts international students who spend an entire year learning Polish before they start.

Den Danske Filmschole – where Lars Von Trier and other Dogma guys developed their style

This week at the festival in Clermont-Ferrand, I heard about the KHM in Germany. If I knew about this place twenty years ago, I’d have tried to attend. There’s still time. Maybe in twenty years, I can get a job teaching there.

The KHM of Cologne (Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln) is a truly unique school, founded on a novel idea – bringing together the teaching of artistic disciplines with media and science courses. In just 20 years, the school has become a goldmine of talent, clearly illustrated in the large numbers of international prizes received annually. Here’s a behind the scenes look at their success.

Founded in 1990 as an unprecedented teaching experiment, the KHM of Cologne continues its mission to educate future artists. « From the start, the school has provided a unique course load which combines arts, new media, and sciences… It all started with a key observation. We noticed that in the preceding twenty years, media and new technology have tended to mix and interact with art, offering exciting new possibilities, » remarks Ute Dilger, a representative of KHM.

You could even say that this wish to unify « Everything » in the process of making images is reminiscent of the days of the « Bauhaus » movement. « We are trying to best prepare our students for the future ».

Although KHM is based in Cologne, a city which is home to many television channels and media companies, the school is entirely government funded. Admissions applications are free of cost, and students are selected based on the submission of portfolios. « Our students should find the form of artistic expression which is best suited to them, and by providing them with such a diverse range of subjects, we help them make that choice, » explains Raimund Krumme, professor at the KHM. « If you were to only learn in one area of creative expression, you would definitely limit your creative potential. »

The school features an abundance of great professors, and the diversity of the teachers is another huge plus. « The professors are very accessible and we do so many things with them, » says Pauline Flory, a French student at the KHM. It’s an intense experience. Learning is constant, and being at the KHM means applying yourself all the time. « The typical student of our school has a great curiosity and a hunger to try all kinds of things to see what is possible. Our students are quite astonishing, and really unique, » beams Raimund Krumme. This one of a kind concept attracts students and teachers from all over the world.

With fifteen films in competition at Clermont-Ferrand and two Oscars for Best Short Film, the Kunsthochschule für Medien of Cologne remains a few strides ahead of other schools.

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