Archive for January, 2013

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Cliches and Shadows- A Brief Look at Film Noir

January 25, 2013

I’ve been ill for a few days recently and when you’re ill there’s very little to do but stare at the TV until your immune system sorts its shit out. Usually, this would mean digging out a DVD boxset and charting your recovery by how far you get in the season (or telling yourself you’ll be better by the end of the series!) but I decided instead to explore a style of filmmaking that I’d never really looked at properly.

I decided to watch some film noir. In part because it’s a style of film I’m venturing into making later this year, but also because I don’t really know the movies that well.

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At uni we’d had that whistle-stop tour of cinema history they do on film courses (as a way of showing students raised on blockbusters and sequels that there’s more to film than the latest reboot or effects-laden merchandising opportunity) but aside from a few clips, I’d largely missed film noir. Like most people, I knew what the style tropes were- the high contrast black and white, the use of shadows, the urban setting, the gangsters, the detective, the femme fatale…- but that in itself was a very blinkered understanding of proceedings.

For those harbouring under the above common illusion, film noir doesn’t have to be black and white (although most films were during the 40s because colour processing was extremely expensive). It doesn’t have to be high contrast with strong shadows (although these are the result of the cheap and relatively fast high key lighting design the European cinematographers bought with them). The “noir” part of film noir doesn’t refer to the cinematography at all really- rather the mood and outlook of the films, dealing as they do with the city’s underbelly, the cops and criminals, stories of deceit, sex and murder. But the visual style was very striking and even after the practicalities of shooting black and white with chiaroscuro-style lighting had become less fiscally necessary, it had become a very effective way of setting the mood. It was the perfect match of style and substance.

Now, I knew all this from lectures, but as I mentioned, I’d watched very little from the film noir canon. A few clips from The Maltese Falcon and A Touch of Evil, but that was it. So I scavenged around online and found me some movies- many of which were on YouTube in their entirety which was handy.

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First up was Double Indemnity, considered one of the quintessential film noirs. The opening sequence of our insurance salesman, Neff, going to his office at night and narrating the past events on an old school audio recorder is a great scene-setting device and really ticks the mood and voice-over cliche boxes. What really makes Double Indemnity however is the dark subject matter- a woman conspiring with her insurance salesman lover to kill her husband for the double indemnity money. At the time, the infidelity, the fraud and the murder were what set the low moral tone (tame as their treatment might be now). One thing that struck me while watching it though was how witty the script was and how well the dialogue was delivered. A lot of it could pass for a contemporary film.

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Next up was The Big Combo, a film that in my mind was a somewhat sub-par crime story with the frequent stroke of cinematic genius. Plot-wise, the film is about an obsessive detective trying to take down a kingpin called Brown who’s always one step ahead of him. The only leverage our cop has is the kingpin’s unhappy trophy wife and as Brown becomes increasingly aggressive and paranoid, he starts to murder all those close to him out of distrust. Kinda reminds me of the 2004 version of The Punisher, where Travolta’s character becomes so paranoid that he murders his closest friends- the punishment Frank Castle had intended. Anyway, what really elevates The Big Combo to its classic status is the cinematography. John Alton uses a very high contrast look with crushed shadows to isolate characters in the frame and reduce the backgrounds to pockets of abstract black and white- most noticeably in the films final, iconic shot of two silhouettes against the fog and searchlight.

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Then there’s The Asphalt Jungle, a heist movie about a master criminal with a plan to rob a jewellery store with the aid of a safe-cracker, a driver, a hoodlum and a financier with fencing contacts. It’s one of the forerunners of the sort of heist movie popular in the 60s and late 90s with quirky characters, an elaborate plan, some semi-fictional security technology (in this case a thoroughly unconvincing infra-red beam sensor of sorts) and many complications and double crosses. It feels a little like an old-timey version of a modern heist film, which is I suppose completely accurate. One thing to note is how all the characters are either arrested or die by the end. This was a common theme in noir and originally stemmed from the studio production code which dictated moral depictions in film- unmarried couples cannot share a bed, bloody violence has to happen off-screen and all criminals have to pay for their crimes. Imagine if in Ocean’s Eleven everybody got arrested at the end instead of just George Clooney, how different would the film feel? Even with the production code’s rules, maybe this was the intention with The Asphalt Jungle. Make the dramatic point that crime does not pay by having the characters regret their choices or fail to achieve their goals. Sterling Hayden’s character (invisibly) bleeds out yards away from the horse farm he always wanted to go home to and Sam Jaffe’s “Doc” gets arrested because he spends too long at a truckstop diner watching a woman dance. It’s their hubris that leads to their downfall.

I also started watching A Touch Of Evil, Orson Wells’ other magnum opus, but haven’t had time to finish it. But the three films I did see in their entirety struck a chord with me not only with how striking they were visually but also how well they work compared to their modern counterparts. You’d expect a 40s film to suffer from overly melodramatic acting and dull pacing but these films weren’t so affected. They worked well and the instances of stilted performance or theatrical staging only served to add to the mood. It really hit home what noir is- a stylistic treatment of a crime/morality story- and it’s that that I’ll apply to the short I’m working on rather than fill it with cliches and shadows.

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A Short-ish Review of the Year that Was…

January 8, 2013

Yep, this is a recap post, but since 2012 was as eventful as a mormon’s party planner it hopefully won’t be a stupidly long one!

Meghann and Conor in "Eliza's Persona"

Meghann and Conor in “Eliza’s Persona”

2012 started extremely well with me landing my first gig where someone hired me for my directing ability. This is a landmark moment in a director’s early career and I threw a lot of myself into it. The project was Persona– a soap designed exclusively to stream from a smartphone or tablet app- and it was a chance to direct dramatic material that didn’t have a sci-fi element. It also meant that I was able to work with other skilled crew members such as DoP Phil Moreton, AD Emily Turton and AC Murat Akyildiz. The film looked and great as a result. I was challenged by the show’s producer, Don Allen, to come up with a story with a current events angle so I created one about a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and how it affects his non-military life. The script was written by the talented Martyn Deakin and the three principal actors- Meghann Marty, Conor Kennedy and Jake Ferretti- really bought it to life. To date, “Eliza’s Persona” has had a very positive response from audiences which is testament to the work of everyone involved and it’s probably the directing work I’m most proud of.

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In April, almost immediately after we’d wrapped on Persona, I was hired to direct the dramatic sequences in a promo video for Snowdance acting classes. The client had arranged for a DoP for me, but it was only when I got to set that I realised that he had limited knowledge of cinematography and lighting… and a Canon 5D mkII. Since he was happy to defer to me, I ended up lighting and operating (with a camera I didn’t know very well) as well as directing in locations that were too modern and austere for the piece. The end result was a mixed bag visually and performances varied from great to stilted- the two actors were excellent given the short scene they had, but the presenter wasn’t confident in his delivery and got too caught up on the exactness of the lines rather than what he was actually saying. I also got roped into editing it- something I wanted to avoid- although it did give me a chance to edit a whole piece in FCPX rather than just bits. Jury’s still out on whether I like the new software or not.

One of the pluses to the gig was I got to meet scriptwriter Ellie Ball– a talented Scottish writer with a sharp wit- and in May/June I asked her to write some viral comedy scripts for me for Enborne River. I decided to make Enborne River specialise in drama, since that was where my track record was, but realised that selling virals was hard when you didn’t have one yourself! She wrote a series of short scripts for me… and I’ve yet to film them due to location issues, so that really needs to be pushed through this year!

Robin March and Sally Rowe, "Jason's Persona"

Robin March and Sally Rowe, “Jason’s Persona”

I was asked to do a second story for Persona and after a series of increasingly contradictory criteria from the production team, writer Keith Storrier and I created Jason’s Persona– a story about a frustrated office worker who finds a new lease of life as a stand up comedian. I was inspired by the story of real-life comic John Bishop, who kept his new career a secret from his mid-divorce wife but reconciled with her when she unexpectedly saw him perform on stage and fell in love with him all over again. For me, that reconciliation and re-falling in love were the real hooks of the story and while we had practical limitations on the shoot getting that scene to work, audience feedback has been very good regarding that payoff.

The Jason’s Persona shoot also almost cost me my day job- that necessary evil that keeps my bank placated- and while I didn’t get fired it did change my attitude to it. I realised that the job was taking up too much of my energy, time and mental real estate. I didn’t have any downtime because I was trying to live two lives (9-to-5-er and director) and cram both (and sleep) into the 168 hours a week allows. I’ve realised this was untenable and have some tricky decisions to make in the coming months regarding the day job. Do I stay, do I go or do I cut down my hours? It might be the most important career decision I ever make…

Mid-summer, I started working with Phill Barron– the lead writer/ script editor on Persona- on a low budget feature. We wanted something time-travelly and over the next few months thrashed out a few treatments, only to put the idea on hold when the plots were getting away from themselves. This too, needs to be resurrected in 2013.

"Bitter Parents" Robin March and Jo Hughes

“Bitter Parents” Robin March and Jo Hughes

I got offered a gig directing a comedy sketch for the Cold Cuts comedy group called “Bitter Parents.” It was pretty much a one-extended-joke scene but it was going to add a bit of comedy to my otherwise drama and scifi-heavy showreel. Due to the difficulties in securing the location, extras and the child performer, the scene didn’t get lensed til November and over the course of two sunday mornings- meaning actors weren’t all in the same place at the same time. Miraculously, it seems to have come out okay though.

In an effort to get a new short film off the ground (and then get some festival exposure) I started looking at all the old scripts I have floating about. A couple of old The Collector’s Room scripts looked like they could work with a bit of a rewrite. I asked TCR’s co-creator and writer, Luke, if he’d do a rewrite on them, but it seems he’s given up screenwriting because I’ve heard nothing more from him. Collaboration is always a problem in this industry which is why it’s worth having some degree of skill in all areas- if necessary, you could do the job yourself! Sadly, I’m not the greatest writer and my rewrite is still at treatment stage. I need to find a local collaborator to write with or else so many projects will go unmade.

Another script that is undergoing the rewrite treatment is a noir-esque action movie. The idea had been in script limbo on my old mac for years, but it was a renewed interest in action movies that prompted me to dig it out, dust it off and start reworking it. If all goes well, I should be shooting my own John Woo-esque gunplay action short in the first half of 2013. Hollywood will beckon!

October was a bit of a bump in the road in my personal life- my Dad passed away at the early age of 60. Quick and painless for him, complete surprise for us. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, how short time can be and rather than make me lower my expectations, instead it’s made me determined to get my career going. Just a belief in yourself isn’t enough- you have to strive for it and take risks if necessary. I’ve started to realise that and have some brave choices to make in 2013 if I want this to happen.

MiMedia

At the tail end of the year my illustrator friend, Mark Stroud and I got involved with fledgling media design group Mi-Media, headed by local entrepreneur Tony Charles. It sounds like a project that’s got legs and a good chance for giving me future work and so far, things have been going well. Hopefully in the next few weeks, the company will go live and we should start seeing the work roll in.

So that wraps up the mixed bag o’ shite that was 2012. Seems more happened than I thought since this post is anything but “short!” Some things got off to a fine start, but many crashed and burned before they got very far.

I think a concerted effort is needed if I’m to make 2013 the year 2012 was supposed to be.