David Gordon Green on Challenging the Audience and Challenging the Character

David Gordon Green on Challenging the Audience and Challenging the Character

nullDavid Gordon Green has proved himself to be a remarkably flexible and unpredictable
filmmaker. After All the Real Girls, he has vacillated between blockbuster
comedy and intimate indie. His evolution from George Washington to Pineapple
to Prince Avalanche brings
him now to Joe.

In this dark drama, Nicolas Cage plays Joe, an
ex-con who befriends a young boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan). The boy’s abusive father
Wade (Gary Poulter) only further ignites Joe’s urge to step in as a father
figure. As Gary’s safety is pushed to dangerous limits, Joe must decide what
he’s willing to sacrifice and where his redemption lies.

I chatted with Green at The Four
Seasons in LA this week about his complex film. It was refreshing to see such a respectable filmmaker be so
incredibly personable. After a few Texas hellos, we got down to business, as Green revealed insights on his film family, his role as a
ringmaster of sorts, and the complexities of Joe’s characters: Green has always had to ability to make his subjects simultaneously monstrous
and sympathetic.  

Meredith Alloway: You’ve said that
the story of Joe is ultimately about people that sculpt your life. It’s fitting that
screenwriter Gary Hawkins has been such an inspiration for you. Was that a
theme you were interested in exploring? 

David Gordon Green: Yes. It certainly was. Everybody has father figures or
older brothers or inspirational teachers or gurus of their lives that help keep
them on track. For me, it’s a perfect circle in a lot of ways because Gary
Hawkins was a very valuable professor of mine in college. He introduced me to
the work of Charles Burnett, Jerry Shatzberg, Polanski, [and] Terrence Malick.
A lot of these guys that have become very influential in my movie-loving
appetite were introduced to me by a guy who knew I would connect with the regional stories and voices of these directors. Having met Gary, who had a taste
that was a little left of center and saw that little twinkle in my eye when I
started to discover these films, it’s amazing to now be collaborating with him
on a professional level. He introduced me to Larry Brown, the novelist who wrote the book Joe is based on. My first job was working on a
documentary about Larry, with Jeff Nichols as another production assistant on it; Gary was the director of the film. I work with quite a large family of filmmakers.

MA: I was going to
ask about that, your producer Lisa Muskat and then Tim Orr, your DP. Then you’ve
also got Seth Rogen and that gang. What are those family relationships like?
It’s definitely something all filmmakers look for. 

DGG: I don’t think that’s what all filmmakers look for. I have a lot of filmmaker friends, in fact, that want the
opposite of that. They don’t hire the same crew over and over because then they feel like
they’re getting too close and emotionally attached. Personally, I like the social
endeavor of the production process. I love having people to challenge me, to
question what I’m doing, because if I know they’re coming from an intelligent
and supportive place, wanting what’s best for the end product, those
are questions I should be asking during the production process. I work with
people that are inspiring and challenging. I’m fortunate enough that they
happen to be my friends, and at the end of a hard day we can go out and
celebrate with a beer or commiserate about how to be better the next day.

MA: You also
challenge yourself with actors you work with. You want your actors to get their
hands dirty and pull apart what you’ve written. Tell me about some specific
moments in the script where Nicolas and Tye brought something new to their

DGG: There’s a sequence where they’re searching for Joe’s
dog. It’s all improvised. These are just two guys that have
gotten to know each other over a few weeks, gotten to trust each other and have
a sense of humor; know their characters and how they’re relating to each other.
They’re just speaking from their hearts and they’re having fun with it and we
get to see the humanity and humor of these characters. It’s one of my favorite
sequences as well. ‘How to make a cool face.’ The cigarette lighter–that was an
idea that Nic had with a prop, and we integrated it into the movie. I don’t
approach the process of directing movies like I’m the authority. I’m more the
ringmaster of the circus. Let’s bring all the animals in the ring, and then
let’s get loose. Play, feel out what works. 

MA: You do have that
playful tone in the film but underneath it there are some heavy issues. There
are over a million kids in the US who are homeless, but you rarely see movies
made about it. Was that something you were interested in exploring as well?

DGG: The dramatic realities of the novel really intrigued
me. They’re heartbreaking circumstances that lead to inspirational
discoveries.  There’s difficult subject
matter that’s dealt with … in tenderness. That was one of the things that really
intrigued me about the story, the juxtaposition of
brutality and humanity. Where you can find someone that has very likeable qualities
and then find his flaws? Someone who has monstrous qualities, what’s
sympathetic about them? Challenge the audience. Challenge the characters.

MA: There’s a scene
that wasn’t in the novel with Wade, Gary’s father. You wrote it in to show more
of his humanity. Why?

DGG: Gary Poulter, the actor that played Wade, who’s
amazing, was a street performer in downtown Austin and he was a break-dancer. When you have an actor like that with a face like
that and ability like that, you want to utilize it. If you don’t, you’re a
fool. We knew he had these abilities and this amazing charisma and he was
really funny, a wonderful guy in terms of our chapter together in his life. I
thought it would be important to add some threads of humanity, humility
and sensibility to this character that was going to such villainous places: he’s the bad guy in the movie but I wanted to make it more complicated than that.

MA: The scene where
Wade attacks the other homeless man is crucial. Did you approach that scene to
encapsulate the idea that a man is a villain, but perhaps he’s the product of
his environment? 

DGG: I’m not sure how much Wade is a product of his
environment. I think he’s mentally ill and he’s taking out some of
his own frustration and disappointment with himself out on his son. And I think
he’s desperate, as he sees his son slipping away from his family life and drawn
to Joe, as he sees his son rising to the responsibility of being the caretaker of
his mother and his sister. I think it’s humiliating for Wade to deal with the descent
of masculinity. He does what a lot of desperate people do, really unfortunate

MA: There’s also the
thread of alcoholism and substance abuse in a lot of your work, in Pineapple Express and even Prince Avalanche. Being from the south
as well, I see it’s a big issue. Do you approach it from a personal place?

DGG: Alcohol, drugs, violence, affection, all these things
illustrate the emotions that are explored with these characters. They’re
all devices to get to know people, devices to watch a character exhibit
something internal. In Avalanche,
the characters use alcohol as medication and as a cleansing that connects two
people in a joyous way. It’s a celebration of life, and getting over it, and
moving on.

MA: I wish I were
part of that party.

DGG: That’s a good party! That’s a positive party. In Pineapple
it’s what slows these guys down but also makes them really
likeable. In Joe, it’s illustrated as
a disease as something that really debilitates the character of Wade. At the
same time, it helps suppress some of the actions Joe might normally do. He uses it to
medicate. If he sees Gary getting hit by his father, and he’s about to open the
door, luckily he’s got a little sauce in his truck to take that edge off. I don’t
think Joe’s an alcoholic, per se. If so, he’s highly functional. I don’t think
he’s ever late for work, I don’t think he wakes up too hung over. I don’t think
he needs alcohol to talk to the ladies.

MA: Was
it a conscious decision to have the last shot not have Gary looking at Joe, but down at his real father, Wade?

DGG: It was a conscious decision for a couple of reasons.
One is, I wanted to reveal that his father was dead. I didn’t want viewers to see it
through Joe’s eyes because that was less important. I wanted them to see it through
his son’s eyes. Then, technically, we shot it day for night. It wouldn’t have looked
consistent if we were to show it from Joe’s perspective anyway. There’s a
different exposure to it.

MA: It’s a story
about redemption and Joe finds it when he puts himself in front of Gary and
says I will commit this act you’re about
to commit.
Did you, even in your imagination, explore if Gary had gone
through with killing his father?

DGG: Always. I think to communicate effectively with Nic, we
needed to be in Joe’s head, and Joe’s playing out the story in his own head.
That’s why Joe steps up to really be the protector in that situation. He’s considered what will happen if Gary falls on the other side of the fence.

MA: You had to go
there with Nic to visualize it.

DGG: We talked about what would happen. You know if someone doesn’t step in, you know Gary’s capable.
He’s a man. He’s not an adolescent in
this movie. It’s the coming of age into manhood. He says to Joe, ‘I could kill him
just as well as you could.’ And Joe says, ‘I know you could.’ Earlier in the
film Joe says, ‘I don’t like to get my hands dirty in every little thing.’

MA: This is not a
little thing, though.

DGG: This is not a little thing, so it’s time to get his
hands dirty.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

Screenwriter Bob Nelson Talks About What’s Personal and What’s Payne in NEBRASKA

Screenwriter Bob Nelson Talks About What’s Personal and What’s Payne in NEBRASKA


Since Premiering at Cannes this year, Nebraska has become an indie darling. The hype around Alexander
Payne’s new feature was buzzing long before its release: Bruce Dern makes his comeback! First time
screenwriter Bob Nelson makes his debut! Nelson has now been nominated for an
Independent Spirit Award and Golden Globe.

Nelson, who worked in TV for years in Seattle on shows like Almost: Live! brings us an impressive,
intimate first feature script. After winning a sweepstakes prize for a million
dollars, Woody Grant (Dern) is set on claiming his prize. His son David (Will
Forte) decides to take him on a trip to obtain the cash, despite the fact that it’s
clearly a scam. The film is a raw, poignant look at a crumbling patriarch and
his compassionate son. Although the story may seem melancholy, the movie finds
levity in its humor. (After all, this is a Payne film.)

I spoke briefly with Nelson about this film at the red carpet
premiere of Nebraska at the AFI Film

Meredith Alloway: This is your
first feature. How did you get it in the hands of

Bob Nelson: I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson
came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the
script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide
Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander
[Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise
money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one
take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.

MA: Nebraska was
optioned back in 2003. What were some elements that Payne infused into your
original draft, over the years?

BN: He’s got a
little bit spread throughout the script. Right off the top, he did some work on
the first act. In my version, David worked in a cubicle and Ross [his brother
played by Bob Odenkirk] was an insurance salesman. He changed their professions,
giving a 40 year old a job where there didn’t seem to be many advancement
possibilities. He created this tension between the brothers, which is nice.
When they have the moment later on with the air compressor, it kind of completes
their story. Mount Rushmore was his idea. He said, ‘You know they’re going
pretty close to Mount Rushmore. Why don’t you have them stop there?’ Those lines that they’re saying in that scene are
pretty much Alexander.

MA: I can’t imagine
anyone else playing Woody. Are there particular moments where you witnessed
Dern make the Woody you wrote his own?

BN: It’s pretty much the whole thing—that’s even better. As
much as you can do in your mind when you’re writing, nothing compares to having
an actor fill it out and make it real. This is pretty special. I was on the set
for a week and I got to see a little bit of that. I got in the video truck and
watched. Boy, when I saw the whole thing put together I was amazed. One of the
first scenes I saw him doing was when he walks into the tavern and sees Ed Pegram
[played by Stacy Keach] with the letter. I knew he was Woody.

MA: Which character
are you the most like? I often feel the writer’s voice speaking through David.
Was he your vehicle?

BN: The script did start with my own father, my relationship
with my dad. I could have imagined my dad doing this, as he was more confused. He might want to make a trip like that. How
would you deal with it?
I honestly used some real life instances that are
in the movie. David brought up those old thoughts of, what do you do with this person you love that had this addiction? You’re
trying to do the right thing by them and give them dignity and show some
forgiveness. My dad was shot down in WWII and was quite a changed person. He
was a generous guy who loaned tools out and never got them back.  The scene at the railroad tracks was from
real life. I used those and at a certain point I started inventing things based
on that. It did help in the beginning to mine from real life.

MA: My favorite
scene in the movie is when all the men in the family sit in the living room,
drink beer and stare at the TV. The dialogue is so terse that it’s hilarious.
How did this scene evolve from your initial idea to what we saw on screen?

BN: Well that’s Alexander’s staging. In my mind, I was
remembering from my childhood that they wouldn’t necessarily watch TV all the time; they would sit in a circle but still not talk. Alexander came up with the idea
of them staring forward. If they have something to say, they say it. There’s
no awkwardness.

MA: You wrote for
years on Almost Live! What resources
did you use to make the transition and tackle a feature?

BN: In fact, I started out and got to page 20 and realized I
should educate myself. I read some screenplays. Some of them would be Casablanca or North by Northwest, but they helped me to get a feel for the film.
I read some books, but I prefer reading books about people talking about the
screenwriting process.

MA: What are your
feelings on the charges that the film is condescending?

BN: Yeah that’s a tough one to talk about. I
come from a comedy background, and I always wanted to do drama and mix the two,
and that’s what Alexander does. Basically if I’m going to write something,
since we’re both humorous at heart, I think every project we do is going to have
some gentle humor about the participants. It’s personal, in a way, because these
are people I love. I don’t think of them as any less smart than we are. I also
don’t want to paint them as “salt of the earth.” The guys staring at the TV,
they had dry senses of humor. I loved those guys. But I can’t change people’s
perceptions. We’re all a little silly. I
could do a scene about some hipsters in New York watching television and make
fun of them talking all the time. That would be the New York version.

MA: Any filmmakers
or artists from this year’s crop of films you find inspiring?

BN: I grew up with Billy Wilder. I love The Apartment. Any screenwriter starting out should watch The Apartment for structure. I grew up
on 70s films. Hal Ashby also combines drama and humor. I also had a
fondness for Horton Foote; you can see that in Nebraska. These days I love the Coen brothers. Albert Brooks was a big
influence. Christopher Guest—there’s a guy who’s accused of being condescending! We
love his films!

MA: What’s up next
for you?

BN: One of my friends is Joel McHale; I’ve written a
script for Joel that I’m directing. We’re out trying to raise
the money now. My last goal in life is to turn Joel McHale into a movie star!

MA: You’ll be
directing this one as well?

BN: That’s what I’m telling people! I have to find someone to
believe it that has money! I just wrote another script that’s even smaller than
Nebraska. It’s inspired by Bicycle Thieves. It’s another dramedy.

Bob Nelson was born on July 18, 1956 in Yankton, South Dakota, USA. He is a writer and actor, known for Nebraska (2013), The Eyes of Nye (2005), and The Magic Hour (1998).

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

ADWEEK INTERVIEW: New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz takes a tough stand on reality TV shows

ADWEEK INTERVIEW: New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz takes a tough stand on reality TV shows


Have you been surprised at any of the comments you’ve gotten about what you’ve written so far?
I don’t feel like Indiana Jones in front of the boulder at New York magazine. Everything that happened at [ex-employer] Salon is like what happened on the island of Lost. There were people who would comment on everything. On one level it was terrifying, but it was kind of nice. There were people who cared about every little thing.

You’re not a fan of Jersey Shore. Are you prepared to take heat from its big fan base among the magazine’s readers?
I have very particular tastes when it comes to reality TV. Just because people are stupid enough to be exploited doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them. My idea of a good reality show is like Survivor, where it’s goal-directed and they have to use their minds to solve problems.

You have a soft spot for doomed shows like Pan Am and Community. Do you hope that by writing about them you can save them?
I want people who make these shows to know someone appreciates what they’re doing, even though they’re not quite pulling it off. I’m 43 years old. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. I think Pan Am is trying to be extremely rich and extremely light at the same time. They haven’t quite mastered the art of making a soufflé every week.

You can read the rest of Adweek's interview with Matt Zoller Seitz here.

INTERVIEW: What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2

INTERVIEW: What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2

[EDITOR'S NOTE: A much-shortened version of this article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 60, Issue 1, First Quarter 2010, under the title, “The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante: A Symposium.”]

My conversation with Joe Dante, Tina Hirsch, and Marshall Harvey continues with a discussion of the director’s most famous film—Gremlins—and several later productions with more challenging post-production circumstances.–Peter Tonguette.

Tina Hirsch: Joe was so worried about the gremlins. He just thought the puppets were completely phony and nobody was going to believe them.

Joe Dante: This was a giant Muppet movie. When you make a picture like this, the question always is, “Are people going to buy this?”

nullTH: It comes to the end of shooting and he was supposed to stay away and give me a week to finish cutting all of the material. But he came in the next Monday or Tuesday, soon after wrap, and I said, “Joe, you look awful.” [Laughs.] We hadn’t shot all of the puppet stuff yet. They were going to take a break for a month and figure out what they needed to shoot. He said, “They’re so phony and awful.” I said, “Joe, they’re not. I believe them. I’m the audience! I’ll tell you what: I’m not completely finished, but I have 95% of the picture finished. How about we have a screening?” We go in, we look at the film, and he comes out and says, “Well, it’s not a disaster.”

JD: Our job was to try to take this puppet footage, of which there was an immense amount, and hone it down to the parts that were the most believable. A lot of times, that came down to which reaction shot of the character we used. I’m a firm believer that even a great special effect is going to look lousy if the reaction shot doesn’t convince you. The real trick was to make the audience believe that the characters on screen believe that the puppets are real.

TH: To cap it off, he got hate mail from people about how cruel he was to these gremlins! [Laughs.] It was exactly how I felt. I said, “I buy that they’re real. You know they’re not, but to me they’re real. Look at the dog! The dog believes they’re real!” That was the smartest thing they could have done, to have a dog at the beginning of the movie react to Gizmo.

JD: It was the best dog that I ever worked with. His name was Mushroom. I actually met him years later and he remembered me. This dog was incredibly
expressive and fascinated by the puppets. He was seemed to think they were real. We found that the more we cut to the dog, the more people bought it!

Peter Tonguette: I understand that Explorers was a difficult film from a post-production standpoint.

JD: The script wasn’t finished when we started filming and they had a release date in mind. The other problem was that the studio changed hands during the
post-production and the new people said, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” So we were basically told to stop work on it at a certain point, just finish it.

Movies get found in the editing room. The movie that you make is not always necessarily the movie that comes out of the editing room. The trick is to perfect
the movie that you have and make it the best version of what you’ve shot, regardless of what the intent may have been. In this case, we were still finding
the movie. The script we shot didn’t have an ending, so we made up a lot of stuff. Here we were, sifting through all this material, trying to focus it, and suddenly it’s, “Okay, all done.” And there it went, out to the public in the rough cut.

nullTH: Had they only given us another two weeks. A scene was written for the end of the picture which would have been with Dick Miller’s character. It would really have summed up the picture. There was no button at the end of the picture. It just kind of dropped off a cliff. It could have been done really cheaply, with one set, so it’s really sad. But the new studio just didn’t care.

JD: The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. (1982). The first half of the movie is Spielbergian and the second half of the movie is the opposite of that. The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves as distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular! [Laughs.]

PT: Dave Kehr has written appreciatively about that very aspect of Explorers, noting that the film “perfectly mimics the nocturnal, nostalgic tone of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind until the moment [it] explodes into the unrestrained delirium of a Bob Clampett cartoon.”

JD: I’m a firm believer that a movie can come out a year later or a year earlier and be successful or not depending on what the Zeitgeist is at the moment. But right then, that was not what people wanted to hear! [Laughs.]

PT: Starting with the segments you directed for Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), and then The ‘burbs shortly thereafter, you’ve worked extensively with Marshall Harvey.

nullJD: I had known Marshall since the Roger days and I’d seen a lot of the exploitation pictures he had cut. We just had a rapport. We liked the same movies and we had the same background.

Marshall Harvey: Joe and I have always gotten along together probably because we share a very similar sense of humor.

JD: The 'burbs was a particularly difficult movie because we shot it in sequence and we ad-libbed most of it.

MH: It was shot during the writers’ strike which meant there was no writer on the set. There were problems with the script, particularly in the third act. It was a great premise, which I think gives the movie its longevity. A lot of the funniest lines were ad-libs that the actors came up with. Joe would just let the camera run and let people improvise at the end of takes.

JD: We were trying to hone in on the good the parts and get rid of the bad parts. The rough cut was two-and-a-half hours and completely different than the
released movie. I’d say he really pulled that out and so the further I went on, Marshall was my go-to guy.

MH: He’s always been the best director in the editing room, partially because he started as an editor. He understands editing and he understands film history. If something isn’t working editorially, he understands why.

PT: Does he like to be in the cutting room?

MH: He likes to be there, which is helpful for the editor. Sometimes you want to try something and then you discover you don’t have the right footage to make that kind of cut. I’ve worked with directors who give their notes and go play golf and you realize, “Oh, geez, this idea is not going to work.” Then they come back and go, “What?” Whereas Joe is right there all the time and he can see immediately that it won’t work. “Why don’t we try this instead?”

At the time we were making The ‘burbs, Joe was pooh-poohing it. “This isn’t exactly my magnum opus!” Yet I’m with him at these events and people come up and the first thing out of their mouths is, “Oh, we love The ‘burbs!” There are web sites dedicated to the movie. We can’t quite believe it has such a following and a longevity to it.

nullPT: What were some of the difficulties in making Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)?

JD: From about 1997 on, the atmosphere in town about making movies has changed. It has become more corporate, there are more cooks in the kitchen than there have ever been, and the effort to get your idea of what the movie should be through has become like plodding through quicksand.

There were twenty-five writers on Looney Tunes, and that’s too many writers for a movie. It was being changed up until the minute that it was shown. It took a year-and-a-half and it was an extremely depressing experience. It pretty much soured me on the whole studio set-up.

MH: The only reason he took on that project, I think, was to preserve the Looney Tunes heritage. He knew Chuck Jones. If you go to Joe’s house, he has a big framed, signed thing from Chuck Jones. He disliked Space Jam (1996) and thought it was kind of a travesty to those characters.

JD: Chuck had just passed away. I thought, “I owe this to Chuck.” I owe him to not have the characters do hip-hop. They need to be true to themselves. My
mission in the movie, and [animation director] Eric Goldberg’s mission, was to try to make sure that these characters emerged intact.

MH: He sent me the script and I thought, “This is not very good.” But if we could make it like a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road picture, with Daffy Duck as Bob Hope and Bugs as Bing Crosby, I thought it could be fun. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t quite see it that way and insisted on cutting out all of those kinds of things. The fact that the movie still ends up preserving the Looney Tunes sensibility is kind of a miracle, really.

PT: Coming on the heels of Looney Tunes, it must have been a relief to make your Masters of Horror episodes, Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution.

JD: They were a blessing for all of us. Directors who are used to battling the studio over everything are suddenly given carte blanche to do whatever they
want provided they could do it in ten days and for not much money. There was absolutely no interference on any level on that show. I was very proud and happy about the two episodes I did that I could never have done anywhere else. They were just too weird, dark, and controversial.

MH: Mick Garris, who created the show, is a director himself. The whole idea was that it was a director-oriented television series.

PT: Tell me about your current project, The Hole.

JD: It’s a small picture with a small cast and not a lot of locations. It’s basically a psychological horror film. It’s a little old-fashioned and it’s a movie that’s suitable to take kids to.

nullIt’s a movie that I went in on. I’m sure they were talking to twelve other guys, but for whatever reason, they liked my take. I went back and I said, “I think there’s one thing that would improve this movie. I don’t know if you’ll go for it or not, but I think this would be a good 3-D movie.” After a couple of days thought and some research, they said, “We think you’re right and we’re going to add a couple of bucks to the budget to pay for the 3-D.” That was great for me because I love 3-D.

PT: What are the challenges of editing a 3-D film in this day and age?

MH: It’s a lot easier than you would think. First of all, we don’t cut it in 3-D. It’s really no different for me than doing a regular movie, except you have to keep in mind that, when it is in 3-D, how certain things will be affected. The Hole doesn’t have a lot of gimmicky throwing things at the audience stuff in it. He took more of the Alfred Hitchcock approach to 3-D in how he staged it, giving depth to each shot.

The most difficult thing about it is that, because I wasn’t able to see the dailies in 3-D, a lot of the shots I’ve never seen in 3-D. Some of the visual effects
shots I’ve now seen in 3-D and I’m going, “Wow! That looks a lot different than I thought it would!” [Laughs.] If there’s something in the foreground, you don’t
really pay any attention to it in a normal movie, but when you see it in 3-D, it’s a totally different experience. You’ve locked the picture and now you’re seeing it in 3-D. “That’s really cool! I wish we could have stayed on that shot longer!”

Joe’s great with child actors and all three leads in it are quite good, particularly Nathan Gamble, who played Commissioner Gordon’s son in The Dark Knight
(2008). He plays the younger brother in this and he’s really good. For a guy who doesn’t have kids, Joe really connects to child actors.

nullPT: How does Joe work with young actors?

TH: Well, I think he’s one of them. [Laughs.] It’s very natural for him to be with young actors because he has not lost the six-year-old boy. That person is still inside him. I remember one time going on the set of Explorers and he was with the three guys [Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Pressen]. He was telling them to do something and then they did the scene and it didn’t happen. And then he didn’t get it a second time. I thought, “Oh, boy.” But he just said, “Okay, we got it, let’s move on.” He realized, “This is all I’m going to get.” He had a day to make and he had kids he was dealing with. They can only do what they can do. He felt, “This is good enough.” To me, that’s a very sane way to work.

PT: You’ve worked with many of the same editors again and again, notably Marshall, Tina, and Kent Beyda. Do you find that to be beneficial?

JD: I find it beneficial in every category: the composer, the DP, the art director. You do form a cadre of people that you trust and who are good at their jobs and who know you and what your quirks and foibles are. It makes making movies very collegial and a lot more fun.

MH: In my experience, Joe is the most loyal person in the film industry. There aren’t that many people that are so loyal to stick with the same group of people.

PT: Do you think you are a better director for having been an editor?

JD: Unquestionably. I think that anybody that wants to direct, particularly writers, should spend some time in an editing room, whether it’s a film of theirs or someone else’s, or shoot their own picture on video and cut it. There’s a way of thinking that comes with being an editor that is incredibly useful on the set.
People who don’t have that sometimes find themselves getting into trouble. It’s not just a vocabulary thing or a right-to-left thing or script supervisor stuff. It’s a way of thinking about the film and the shots and the way they fit together—what you need and what you don’t need, and what you can get away with if you have to.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.




A few weeks after my video essay Chaos Cinema had been published on Press Play, I received an email from cinematographer John Bailey. Even though I am primarily invested in directors, his name was familiar to me. When I was about ten years old, my dad had shown me the Wolfgang Peterson directed Clint Eastwood vehicle In the Line of Fire (1993). I distinctly remember liking the film and watching it several times on video. When I read Mr. Bailey’s name in the email, that memory immediately popped into my head.

He told me that he would like to meet and conduct an interview with me for his work at the American Cinematographers website, where he maintains an extraordinary personal blog that I wholeheartedly recommend. I was of course quite nervous about the meeting; after all, the video essay proved to be rather controversial. But it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Mr. Bailey was very considerate and friendly and I am deeply grateful for his generous assessment of my work.

He agreed to an interview with Press Play as well. I find Mr. Bailey's thoughts on Chaos Cinema and filmmaking in general very intriguing. It is always enlightening to learn the perspective of an industry professional.

Matthias Stork: I am familiar with your work as a cinematographer, but I was unaware of your blog at the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) website which covers a wide variety of cinephiliac topics. How did your blog come about and how do you choose topics to write about?

John Bailey: Two years ago Martha Winterhalter, publisher of American Cinematographer Magazine, asked me if I would like to contribute to the ASC website by writing a blog. I had previously written for the Filmmaker’s Forum page of the magazine. I told her that I would do it if I could write about anything I wanted to, not just film. She agreed. I saw the blog, and continue to see it, as a place where I can explore my own eclectic interests in the arts; I have no set agenda and pick subjects from books, reviews, exhibitions, and ideas from friends. Writing about a subject forces me to focus my thoughts in some kind of coherent way. I was educated by the Jesuits; I have a proclivity to want to organize seeming randomness.

In my opinion, you inhabit a rather intriguing position within the film discourse. You are both an industry professional and an observer. Does this double status inform either of your occupations?   

nullBeing a working professional may give me a more credible bully pulpit to discuss current issues. Whether or not that extends to any perspective I have on any of the other arts depends on whether the reader thinks there are any reliable aesthetic underpinnings to what I write. I try to be less categorical in my opinions on subjects other than film, as I want to intrigue the reader to explore the art and artists I write about with the same enthusiasm that prompted me to write. My perspective on cinema, however, is much more personal, and comes out of over 40 years of work. It’s really impossible to objectify any discussion about what is so close to your skin. As they say, “movies are my life.”

In a fantastic essay titled In Search of a Cinema Canon you describe yourself as neither a critic nor a film historian, just an avid lover of movies. Could you elaborate what exactly it is that draws you to the medium? I understand that this is an abstract question. To put it differently, what do you like to see in films? Maybe we can also extend our purview and include more tangible aspects, drawn from your own work, i.e. cinematography.

If the question is abstract, my love of cinema is concrete—as is the art form itself. Wonderful as the history of experimental or abstract filmmaking is, we mostly think of movies as plot, character and narrative that relate to real world experience. It is the very real life aspect of movies that attracted me from the beginning. It may be why I have less interest in fantasy and action movies, and why I have such antipathy for gratuitously violent action films that bear no resemblance to any life experience. At the same time, I am powerfully affected by films that combine the drama of life with formalist technique and style, whether it is Bela Tarr, Robert Bresson, or Ernst Lubitsch.

I am drawn to filmmaking because though parts of me enjoy solitude, I love the give and take collaboration, even the tensions of a film set. It is a complex weave of art and technology with the equipment always threatening to overwhelm the art. You have to wrestle the equipment to the ground and make it crack to your whip.

nullIn the essay you also mention that you and your wife, film editor Carol Littleton, were involved in an international outreach program in Kenya and Rwanda. You gave workshops on cinematography and film editing. Could you speak about your experience and how you organized the workshops?

The workshops in Nairobi were created by the German organization One Fine Day, the brainchild of Tom Twyker and others. As you might expect, it was highly structured and ran like clockwork, a classically oriented pedagogic program, including one day that featured recreating five famous paintings. There were plenty of cameras and lights to work with.

In Kigali, there was no advance program and we all tried to develop an agenda based on the experience and questions of the students, many of which were of a start-up nature. The film school is embryonic and there is virtually no support equipment such as lights and grip and dollies. The greater potential of the Rwandan program, though, lies in the tragedy of its recent genocidal history, not that that is the only theme, but the power of that cultural and societal disruption can be the spark of a greater creative force in film.

During our encounter, you told me that you went abroad as a college student, an experience to which I can fully relate. I am wondering whether the time in Europe had an impact on you which is still present, and whether it extended to your work in the film industry as well.

I think I can speak for Carol as well as for myself [when I say that] it is impossible for me to imagine a life in film had I not studied as an undergraduate in Europe. It was there that I was exposed to cinema, not just movies. It took me a long time to embrace mainstream American movies. I am still coming as a late student, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, to the glories of many American movies of the golden studio era.

I had the great good fortune in my time as camera assistant and camera operator to work with auteurist American directors such as Monte Hellman, Robert Altman, Robert Benton, Alan Rudolph, Terrence Malick, and of course with cinematographer Nestor Almendros. It gave me an aesthetic foundation, so that when I met with Paul Schrader for American Gigolo I was able to have real discourse with him about Bresson and Antonioni.

nullYou contacted me vis-à-vis my video essay on chaos cinema and I was very pleased to hear the opinion of a professional on the matter. You articulated your own thoughts in your blog essay but I would like to revisit some aspects of the phenomenon. How would you personally characterize what I termed chaos cinema?

I think that you have focused closely and clearly on action movies in discussing chaos cinema; I would characterize the notion of chaos cinema as a style that uses the camera to disrupt, disorient, even fracture the viewer’s sense of space and time—deliberately exploiting the most advanced techniques to replace traditional narrative engagement and substitute it with visceral excitement—exactly what many video games do.

Not being a huge fan of action movies, I ask myself whether the stylistic underpinnings you discuss can also be applied to more narrative oriented films and what effect chaos style has to either disrupt any sense of engagement beyond spectacle—or whether it can serve also as the foundation for a new kind of narrative. I try to address this, tentatively, in the last part of my blog essay on chaos cinema/classical cinema.

In your essay, you stress the significance of character and emotion in narrative storytelling. How do you approach these concepts as a film viewer and a cinematographer?

We can’t escape our personal histories. From grammar school forward, I was presented with many aspects of a classical education, meaning one that was based on Aristotelian ideas, even as they evolved through the pageantry of Western art history. As a viewer, I, like most people, am looking for emotional involvement that is grounded in some sense of credible experience. Those movies don’t have to be dour dramas. Sometimes, animated films like Up or The Triplets of Belleville capture these qualities in an essence that is more elusive in live action films.

As a cinematographer, I read the screenplay not for visual style or technical potential, but for emotional engagement. Any consideration of film style develops from that starting point, in discussions with the director and production designer.

nullYou worked as a cinematographer for the film In the Line of Fire, directed by German émigré filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen. It is my favorite of his Hollywood endeavors. Could you explain how you approached your work in the film? What was important to you, and how did you translate it into the film?

I told Wolfgang that Das Boot demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is a master of action; I had confidence that the visceral momentum of the film was easy for him. What interested me more is the cat-and-mouse drama between John Malkovich and Clint Eastwood, one an angry nihilist, and the other a humanist looking for redemption. I told him that the therapy scenes in Ordinary People between Tim Hutton and Judd Hirsch constituted a film within the film. I thought the phone calls between Malkovich and Eastwood had a similar basis, and that if we could make each of the phone calls dramatic and visually compelling—the rest of the film was window dressing. You may agree or not, but that is the idea I worked from and I think that is what makes that film different from most action films.

Cinematography has undergone significant changes during the last decades. What are, for you, some of the prominent shifts that have occurred and how do they register on-screen for average audiences? What would you define as chaotic attributes of modern cinematography?

To answer that question would require several lengthy essays. The most prominent shift, I think, is out of the hands of the cinematographer and is in the hands of the VFX creators. And that is the rise of computer-generated imagery to such a level of convincing space that, at least for quick cut, short bursts, it is visually credible as reality. What usually gives it away is the hubris of the generators in defying the laws of gravity. Movie action sequences have become so usurped by the ir-reality of first person video gaming that viewers don’t believe action sequences in movies any more; they look phony. Of course, that’s no problem if you aim for nothing more than spectacle. What is phenomenal about the CGI technique is the ability to tell character driven movies such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a way that was not possible before.

nullChaotic attributes are simply major disruptions of time and space as a device to deconstruct or destroy traditional narrative. The use of multiple cameras for simultaneous action, especially at different frame rates, is one tool. Extensive use of multiple cameras, especially with longer lenses, disengages you from a sense of intimacy with the characters. Multiple cameras also make it more difficult to do what the French call a plan sequence, the complex interplay of one structured shot into the next one; that style is the antithesis of chaos cinema. Also, I find that shaky-cam is often a distancing rather than an engaging device. It is supposed to make you feel more involved, more present in the action. In practice, especially with arbitrary zooming and deliberately bad pans, it just throws you outside the moment making you conscious of the camerawork. It is self-indulgent and hubristic. Conversely, if you are aiming for a cinema verite feel, these very techniques can be effective. There are, after all, no set prohibitions. Also, rapid fire cutting as a relentless technique does not keep you engaged; if there is no slower paced rhythm in the quieter scenes as counter rhythmic, this pace becomes alienating, even boring. Finally, layering shot after shot after shot with no sense of hierarchy reduces the concept of cinematography to nothing but coverage. The shot becomes just data. The cinematographer is reduced to capturing data.

I have always wanted to pick the brain of a film professional about technology and the pragmatic approach to filmmaking. Could you briefly break down the profession of a cinematographer? What does a cinematographer do, and how?

This is actually easy to address. The cinematographer uses the camera to dramatize visually the narrative potential of the screenplay. His main tools to do this are lens selection, camera placement, composition, camera movement, shot-to-shot coverage, and light. In some film cultures it is the light that is his principal focus; in other cultures, such as the USA, all of these elements are the purview of the cinematographer. This work is done in collaboration with the director and in varying degrees with the production designer and costumer. Some directors are story and performance oriented; others are image oriented. The great ones should be both.

The cinematographer’s ability to do all of this work is modified or even constrained by many things, such as schedule and money. The greatest challenge for the cinematographer, like for any artist, is the ability to create good work within the parameters you have—to be flexible, to have a can-do attitude. Often it is the cinematographer and assistant director who have to set the positive tone on the set. The director is swamped by needs of the actors and dictates of the producers and studio.

You cite Point Blank as a paradigm of effective action. Are there any other action films that you like? And how would you define good action?

Good action is not an end in itself, but is a visceral tool to generate emotion by ratcheting up tension or creating release (catharsis). It serves as counterpoint to static dialogue scenes. Just like in a symphony, you have allegro and adagio movements.

I like much of Kurosawa; much of his action happens only after incredible tension precedes it. The same for the climactic action scenes in Sergio Leone films, and not just the spaghetti westerns. The Battle of Algiers and Wages of Fear are great action films, and recently, The Hurt Locker.

To hearken back to your blog, I was astonished by the breadth of topics you cover, and I urge cinephiles to seek it out. All of your work is steeped in the history of cinema. I wonder if you could enumerate a few books on film that you regard as essential to the study and enjoyment of the medium.

The books I love are not about the making of films but about life by filmmakers: Cocteau’s Diary of a Film; Bunuel’s My Last Sigh; Herzog’s Walking in Ice; Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography; Jack Cardiff’s Magic Hour; Nestor Almendros’ A Man with a Camera; Karl Brown’s Adventures with D.W. Griffith; and of course, Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer.

If you could pick any director to collaborate with, who would it be? 

The late Francois Truffaut. I only met him once, when he came to visit Robert Benton on the set of The Late Show. Of living directors, I have done five films with Paul Schrader, who has been a great presence in my life beyond the set. I have also made five films with my friend Ken Kwapis. I hope to do five more with him.

Matthias Stork is a Press Play contributor and film scholar-critic from Germany who continues to pursue an academic career at UCLA where he studies film and television. He has an MA in Education with emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended The Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representitive of Goethe University's film school and you can read his blog here.