Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In Praise Of Robert Altman

Filmmaking - There Was A Man Dept.


One of my favorite modern filmmakers, the

great Director Robert Altman has died, at 81.

Altman made mostly tv from 1951, with two features in 1957,

"The James Dean Story," and "The Delinquents," and in 1969
"That Cold Day In The Park," shot in Vancouver, BC.

Although he'd directed them, and many of my favorite tv shows,(like "Combat!," "Route 66," "Bonanza," "The Roaring 20's,""Surfside 6," "Lawman," "Maverick," "Sugarfoot," "U.S. Marshal,""The Millionaire," "Hawaiian Eye," "Whirlybirds," "Peter Gunn,""Alfred Hitchcock Presents," and a 1977 segment of "Saturday NightLive"), for me, his movie career begins with "M*A*S*H."

I got caught up in "M*A*S*H" in 1970, and watched it many,many times. Hundreds of times, actually, just to see how deliciously seamless was this anarchic collection of war anecdotes. In many ways, it's still Altman's best film. It was his biggest box office hit.

Hollywood said "M*A*S*H" couldn't be done.
Altman was the fifteenth Director
offered the project.

It said "Korea" at the top of "M*A*S*H," (at the insistence
of Fox, the studio), but it was obviously an anti-war movie
about all wars, most notably (then-current) Vietnam.
And funny! In my opinion, nobody in that film has done
better work, before or since.

I don't just watch movies.
I devour them. I study them.

I was studying "M*A*S*H" again recently. DVDs sure make it
easier now. Back and forth, forth and back, frame by frame.

In 1970, it wasn't quite so easy. I was a self-proclaimed
movie reviewer, 14 years old, a junior in high school.
I'd recently seen my first theatrical movie,
and was ruined for regular work.

My technique was to show up at movie theatres (standard or
drive-in) and show a little card I'd made on a Xerox machine.

They'd let me in, and I'd see the movie over and over, until I'd
absorbed it, and I'd go home and type my review, and mail it to
local newspapers.

A surprising number of them got printed. Getting printed got
much easier once I was in college. They let me write for their
newspaper, and I got access to a better Xerox machine.

Seeing movies got to be much easier when I got jobs as
projectionist and theatre manager, and easiest of all
when I bought my own theatre.

I first met Robert Altman in 1976. He'd made a movie called
"Nashville" the year before. I'd watched it more than 150 times.

Mr. Altman came to speak at my college, the University of

Washington, in an enormous concrete bunker called Kane Hall.

The hall seated several hundred comfortably, and was packed far
beyond capacity. Altman had come to speak, bringing with him
beautiful Sally Kellerman and his very talented protégé
Alan Rudolph, the Director of the film they were there
to plug, "Welcome To L.A." It was a fun film,
a real indy feel, music by Richard Baskin.

Altman talked about his career, and "Welcome To L.A." and

answered movie questions from the audience.

I asked one about "Nashville," wanting to know whether the
motorcade that starts the assassination sequence was an
intentional allusion to the 8mm Kennedy/Zapruder footage.

Altman smiled slyly and said yes, they'd set it up that way.
He said nobody had asked that yet.
I mentioned I'd watched it 150 times.

You would have thought I'd slapped him. He blinked, and his
eyes rolled, and he stepped back. I was startled for a moment.

Then he grinned, and said "150 times two bucks..."
(then-current movie admission price), pantomimed working
a cash register, and the audience roared with laughter.

I didn't have the heart to tell Mr. Altman I'd seen it that
many times for free, but it was clear to me he was a guy who
knew his Business, at least as well as he knew his Art.

I read his interview in Playboy magazine, where he
said he wrote scripts as bait, to get studio financing, but
would not be confined by them, when he actually made the
movie. His movies were based on an outline, but most
dialogue and action were improvised by Altman and his cast.

I read a similarly-published Playboy interview with Mike
Nichols, who said he was surprised to find himself only filming
things that were carefully written, improvising almost nothing.

(Considering that Nichols and his comedy partner Elaine May, and
their improv mom Viola Spolin, practically invented most of the
rules of what we know now as improvisational theatre, learning
Nichols now-sticks-rigidly-to-scripts was a revelation to me.)

What sticks out most from that interview was Mike Nichols saying
something to the effect of "The things I thought I'd be doing,
improvising whole movies, are now being done by Robert Altman."

I agree, and so does the box office. Compare Altman's
"M*A*S*H" with Nichols's "Catch-22," sometime.
(Both anti-war movies, both made the same year.)

"M*A*S*H" was made on a shoestring, with a great cast,
and jazzed with an incredible electricity. Hit!

"Catch-22" was incredibly expensive, with a great cast,

and...very clever, but only a couple of volts. Flop.

Nobody made movies like Robert Altman.

To be specific, nobody made bright, improvised movies,
working with an ensemble cast of similarly-bright actors
improvising brilliantly, better than Robert Altman.

The editing of his films was never short of incredible. It had to be.
Altman gave every Actor a microphone. Each mic fed a separate
track on his 2-inch, 15 ips, 40-track Stephens tape recorder.

That gave the cast complete freedom to improvise, knowing each Actor's words were preserved separately, even when their dialogue overlapped, and could be edited and mixed any way necessary, to present only words that moved the story along.

Altman's soundtracks can sound like a jumble sometimes, but if you listen, you'll understand just how much they are orchestrated and trimmed, shaped and sculpted, to allow only story to punch through.

Another thing he was great at was the use of the Panavision zoom lens. He zoomed sparingly, for a guy who'd shot so much television, but when a zoom was called for, Altman used it like a virtuoso.

(Kubrick mostly didn't shoot Anamorphic, but he was the other great zoomer.)

I loved (and devoured) Robert Altman's other '70s films too.

"Brewster McCloud" a strange allegory about a young man who wants to fly on bird wings in the Houston Astrodome; "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," a Pacific North Western set in the rainy Pacific Northwest; 

"Images" where Susannah York goes crazy; "The Long Goodbye" with Elliot Gould as Raymond Chandler's Hollywood detective Philip Marlowe; "Thieves Like Us" Keith Carradine, John Schuck, and Bert Remsen as three escaped convicts; "California Split" George Segal and Elliott Gould gambol and gamble.

"Nashville," with Henry Gibson, beautiful Karen Black and Ronee Blakelee, goofy Jeff Goldblum, and Lily Tomlin, and Keith Carradine, who won an Oscar for his song "I'm Easy," of course;

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians" with Paul Newman as America's first superstar; and "A Wedding" which was, well, a wedding, only with a great ensemble Hollywood cast, and with Altman, great Hollywood Movie Director, taking the home movies.

Then I went Hollywood in 1978.

Long story, but I bought a bunch of Mr. Altman's 35mm sound
equipment, to take back with me to my home studio in Enumclaw.
He got better gear, and I gave his old machines a good home,
as long as I had them.

I saw fewer and fewer of his new releases, as I was trying to
learn my own chops, but I always enjoyed what I saw.
His movies were great.

I remember "3 Women," Altman's dope dream, and "Popeye,"
his kid's film, which I ran at my theatre.

1982's "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," as Altman's great little 16mm theatrical adaptation of his Broadway production. I saw it in Portland, Oregon.

I remember the snooty Art crowd I was with, who laughed aloud when Cher's title credit came up. Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre Bono Allman was great in that picture. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, and has had a fine movie career ever since. Emmy, Oscar, Golden Globe, you name it. Go Cher!

1992's "The Player" was a great back-stab at Hollywood itself, with an ensemble cast of many top Hollywood stars, a murder story unfolding over a Hollywood studio backdrop.

Ya wanna know how Hollywood works? See it.

Catch the "ultimate tracking shot," at the beginning, complete with Actors discussing other movie tracking shots, like Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil," and Antonioni's "The Passenger," within the shot itself. Utterly delightful, a wicked satire.

1994's "Prêt-à-Porter" ("Ready To Wear") is a guilty pleasure picture, which all builds to a long runway of beautiful nudes. Delightful!

I saw Robert Altman, for what I sadly realize now was the last time, at the Academy Awards in 2001. He'd received his fifth Oscar nomination, for "Gosford Park."

I talked to him about it, and he seemed happy, although the
irony of having to go to England to make a movie for almost
such an honor here, wasn't lost on him. He'd won the Golden
Globes Best Director Award that year, which has often meant
an Oscar win, but not this time. No Altman 2001 Oscar.

"Gosford Park" was Altman's biggest box-office hit,
after "M*A*S*H."

Robert Altman was one of the very best, but never got a
Best Director Oscar. He did get a Lifetime Achievement
Award, at the 2006 Academy Awards. Wish I'd been there.

Afterward, he revealed to the press that he had a heart
transplant some time back, and he worried he wouldn't
be hired again.

I can't check that, but it's in keeping with the
WWII bomber pilot who later made one of the best
anti-war films of all time. Change of heart, indeed.

I missed seeing "A Prairie Home Companion" this last year,
I've been so busy, but I will. Especially now.

What great films, what a great body of work.

Robert Altman, you were great. I salute you.

3 Women
The Player
A Wedding
Ned Beatty
Karen Black
Tim Robbins
Brion James
Gosford Park
Touch Of Evil
Henry Gibson
Robert Altman
Ronee Blakely
Long Goodbye

The Passenger
California Split
Peter Gallagher
Keith Carradine
Sally Kellerman

Thieves Like Us
Welcome To L.A.
Whoopi Goldberg
Brewster McCloud
A Prairie Home Companion
Prêt-à-Porter (Ready To Wear)
Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Friday, November 10, 2006

AFM - High-Def Audio Arrives

Filmmaking - Audio

High-Def Audio Arrives
by Angela Taylor

At the American Film Market, I experienced "AG3D," a new digital
post-production sound technology that alters the soundtrack by
modulating phase, to render greater apparent audio clarity.

Whatever it does, my ears like it. The process seems to add
depth and dimension to the soundtrack, in my opinion increasing
apparent clarity like you wouldn’t believe.

In the demonstration, I heard A-B soundtrack comparisons, with the
process switched on and off. The difference was remarkable. When
it was on, I could clearly hear water trickling, cicadas chirping,
many audio details I didn’t notice, without AG3D.

Unlike many other post-sound technologies, AG3D happens during
post, so it does not require any special playback equipment.
A film finished with AG3D can play anywhere, even one's living room.

The entire process takes about a week to complete, for the average
feature film. Visit here to find out more.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

AFM - The Living Market

Filmmaking - Stress Relief

AFM - The Living Market

Well, it's been a week. Angela and I covering the AFM here,
and she asked, "Is it stressful for you, Sam?" I told her no.

Record-setting growth of the AFM this year indicates the
strength and vitality of the film and television industry. The
Market is alive, and it's thrilling to see it serving both
production and distribution.

There are frantic industry changes going on simultaneously,
and sometimes it is an overwhelming task, to just try to keep
track of it. It just goes on and on and on, with no signs of
stopping. It won't even slow down.

At times like these, I don't even try.
I have a special method for coping.

I walk down onto the Santa Monica pier, to the last restaurant
way at the end. The last restaurant before Japan. I order the
lox and scrambled eggs.

Maybe I'll have an orange juice, if it's fresh-squeezed.
Maybe, if the stress has been particularly high, I won't do
that. I'll just have a glass of water.

I eat slowly, enjoying every bite. I sip the water, and enjoy
how cool it is, until it is all gone. Then I pay the bill, and
walk back.

By the time I've returned to the Loews Santa Monica Beach
Hotel, the sense that the whole film business is rushing away
from me at the speed of light, and also rushing toward me at
dangerous velocity, has abated.

Then, it's afternoon, and things start to slow down naturally,
in preparation for evening. All right! Do whatever works for
you, that's my advice.

You want it slow, go to the pier. You want it happenin', and
flashing and rumbling, and your mental process teetering on
the brink of sensory overload, just dive back into the AFM.
Something for everybody.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

AFM - Need A River?

Filmmaking - Locations

Need a River?
by Angela Taylor

Here’s a cool location feature I discovered at AFM.
The West Virginia Film Office offers “River on Demand.”

Gauley River is managed by a flood-control dam and the
Army Corps of Engineers will open and close valves to
create just the river you need.

You can shoot different rivers in one manageable location.
Want rapids? Want a calm river? You can get both on Gauley.

Obviously, there's a heap of restrictions I can’t even begin
to address here. Contact the West Virginia Film Office.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

AFM - Cavalcade Of Film

Filmmaking - Filmmakers Gather

AFM - Cavalcade Of Film

Not only is the 27th American Film Market, the world's largest
film market, AFM is also a great big fat film festival.

592 films will screen here this year. That's up almost 20% from
last year's 534 films. There will be 431 market premieres this
time, increased from 2005's 382. Those are both, by any accounting,
an all-time high for the AFM.

AFM has a strategic alliance with the American Film Institute's AFI FEST,
which is another film festival, and they're inter-related. That alliance
has 54 films represented at both the AFM and as Official Selections at
the AFI Festival. Put together, they represent the largest throng ever,
of films and television, and North American film and television industry professionals.

Why? Because your digital television has 1000 digital channels. That
means 24,000 hours of programming in a 24-hour day. This is the best
time to be a filmmaker in the history of the world. Get on it!


Monday, November 06, 2006

AFM - More Than Ever

Filmmaking - AFM Stats

AFM - More Than Ever

Some stats about the 27th American Film Market. This one
is better than ever. There are 435 companies exhibiting here.
They come from 36 countries, to make film, television,
raise money, spend money, lend money.

There are banks and private investors, screenings and events,
incredibly well-heeled rollers, wealthy people with full backing
of outrageously huge lending institutions, and also single little
individual filmmakers, with only a DVD of a film, or just a credit
card, or maybe not even that. Maybe just an idea for a film,
or an idea for a credit card.

They're all here, and maybe that's enough. Maybe they'll meet
somebody with a deal for them. I hope so.

This AFM is not just better, it's more, bigger, faster than ever.
AFM's like Cannes, only not French, like MiFed, only not Italian.

There is film, and it is warm like those places, and sunny too,
only it's friendly old sunny Santa Monica, and they talk mostly
English here, and I know all the best places, so I'm happy here.

I'm surrounded and enveloped by film and television companies,
financial organizations and institutions, filmmakers and their
antics, all reported commented-upon and interwoven
with media, media, media.

Attendance here is projected at some 8,400 from those
65 countries. That's 5% more than last year. They don't
really announce final numbers until it's all over,
but that's close enough.

Gotta go, I'm diving back in.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

AFM - Canada Production Incentives

Filmmaking - Canada

AFM - Canada Production Incentives

The Canadians have a prime spot in the Yoga Room, front
of the Loews Hotel, and are represented well at AFM 2006.

The Canadian Film Commission and Agencies coordinate the
Canada office, working through the Canadian Consulate
General in Los Angeles.

Since you asked, what are the gimmes one can expect
from our neighbor to the great white north?

In Canada, the government supports filmmaking,
by every means you can imagine, and some that
probably wouldn't ordinarily occur to you.

Here's what they tell their own people, those
who want to invest in the Canadian economy.

Here's what Variety says about Canada.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

AFM - Louisiana Lures Filmmakers

Filmmaking - Locations

AFM - Louisiana Lures Filmmakers
by Angela Taylor

Every state offers incentives of some kind to entice filmmakers to
visit and leave money, but Louisiana’s hospitality is second to none.

In addition to the state incentives, there are federal incentives, to
rebuild the Gulf area after Hurricane Katrina.

Anything that can be qualified as “infrastructure development” is
eligible for a 50% bonus depreciation, or low-interest bonds.

Infrastructure development includes creating jobs, and building or
repairing structures. If you partner with a Louisiana production
company, you can get small-business loans, as well.

The state of Louisiana offers a 25% investor tax credits on projects
and infrastructure development as well, a 15% credit on post facility
and soundstage expenses, and a payroll tax credit of 10% for
employment of Louisiana residents.

But wait! There’s more!

You can sell your tax credits!


Yep! You can sell your tax credits to get more cash to
subsidize your production.

If you want to see the variety of locations you can shoot in
Louisiana, or to find out more about incentives, visit
Louisiana's Department of Economic Development,
or the Louisiana Capital Area Film Commission.

To find out what incentives are offered by other states, you can
contact individual film commissions, or Axium Entertainment
for its Guide to US Production Incentives.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about Canada.


Friday, November 03, 2006

AFM - Friend or Faux?

Filmmaking - Filmmakers Gather

AFM - Friend or Faux?

This is the 27th American Film Market, the world's largest
film baza'ar. Filmmakers and acquisition execs and financiers
and newbies and old hands and wannabees all rub elbows,
buzz their wings and beat out the rhythm of their
particularly cinematic courtship dance.

Ah, love, it's wonderful.

Some do the waggle-dance to show where the financing is,
others pet and flatter some local drone-in-disguise, to
get him to help them with heavy lifting on some project.

Others fawn over a minor celebrity who got a suite on his
Visa card, attempting a leapfrog over his actor pals, an
arrogation of position as producer or buyer or at least
some kind of owner of this phase of the old career.

Good luck to them! Leaping out of the water, hopping
back up the food chain, is almost always a good idea,
no matter how disappointing it may turn out.
I wish them well.

I'm seein' it, I'm hearin' it, and at this place in
my life, it's all funny to me. I can hardly keep a straight
face when the poor lady I saw arrive from hitchhiking here
emerges from the restroom bedecked as a middle-European
queen, glitter replacing her gym sweats.

Transformation's complete, too. She's got a distinctive
facial feature, or I'd never recognize her. It's not just
clothes, but total immersion. She's got the sneer, and the
"don't bother me, I'm somebody" vibe, and everything.

She speaks softly, and drops names so hard they bounce,
and people stop conversing in the bar, and strain to hear
what she says, just like the old stockbroker ad.

She's fine until this evening, when she'll get a room,
or wander around until dawn, or maybe sleep on the beach.
Please help her, God. You go, lady!


Thursday, November 02, 2006

AFM - Match.com For Movies

Filmmaking - Marketing

InDPlay Online Film Marketplace
by Angela Taylor

InDPlay (Indy Play - get it?) refers to itself as an online
marketplace for film, TV and video rights.

Best thing about it?  FREE to list your movie.

Also great - buyers can search by genre, rating, budget or
available rights. 

Say a buyer wants a PG-13 action movie with available ancillary
rights in Asia, and you have just such product.
Bing!  Your film comes up.

InDPlay also manages the whole distribution process, tracking
contracts (it lets you know exactly what changes have been made
on the latest revision, so no sneaking stuff in), payments, and
deliverables, in an easy-to-understand, passbook-looking format.

Here’s the downside: As it’s free to both buyers and sellers,
InDPlay pays the bills by taking a percentage of the final
contract fee. That means from you.

Just as in the rest of the independent film world, where the
content creator often doesn’t see a dime, that just means one
less slice to the indie pie.

You're not only in it for the money, are you?

Check out InDPlay.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

American Film Market 2006!

Filmmaking - American Film Market


Be there or be square. If you're not attending, if only
to see what's up, or to say hello, you're not really playing
the game.

You need to be at the American Film Market, at
the Loews Hotel, in beautiful Santa Monica by the sea.
AFM is the biggest film market event in North America.

To play the 2006 filmmaking game, pony up the dough
for a ticket, and spend 8 days with other filmmakers, all
frantic to see their movie get financed, made and sold.

I'll be there.

Aloha, and ciao for naio.