Category Archives: Cinematic Storytelling

Cinematic Storytelling: August: Osage County

I was fortunate enough to catch the original production of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer/Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County. I’ve seen the original Steppenwolf production in Chicago (pre-Broadway) as well as the Oregon Shakespeare production. When news of a film adaptation came, I remember reading in the trades how every A-Lister wanted to be involved in the film version. Now that it’s arrived in its cinematic form, it’s a film well-worth seeing. Sure, the play’s obvious heavy melodrama doesn’t translate as solid on screen as a fan of the play would hope yet the what rises to the top in this film version are the great performances by this amazing cast–a venerable who’s who, with everyone cast perfectly in their roles.

What I wanted to highlight about this film is how director John Wells really didn’t have a lot of opportunity to make the film breathe outside of the confines of the story. Sure, the strange  beauty of the piece is the claustrophobic atmosphere of Violet Weston’s (Meryl Streep, in fine form as always) dreary Oklahoma ranch home. Yet, when he does have the opportunity to show a little cinematic flair, it comes off rather beautifully and subtly–a huge contrast from the bravado of the performances. The film is sprinkled with wide shots of the Plains and old Western murals that truly give the film a much needed scope.

Yet a pivotal moment happens near the climax of the film with eldest daughter Barbara played by Julia Roberts (who gives a career-defining performance). Her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) decides to bring their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) back home to Colorado. At this point in the movie, the themes are fairly obvious (generational sins, mothers/daughters, parenting, etc.) What’s wonderful about this scene is how subtle the transition happens from one family issue to another.

Jean, furious with her mother has daggers for her (1), after the debacle of the previous evenings’ incident. She decides to not speak and simply roll up the passenger car window revealing (2) her mother Barbara, in turmoil. The reflection falls right in front of her daughter’s face. Pure genius. Yet that’s not all. As we shift family issues, the camera pans up and as one car pulls away another arrives (3, 4) transitioning us to the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. It’s also fascinating to see how vehicles play a huge part in helping show the themes in the film.

August: Osage County is peppered with interesting cinematic flairs much like the example I show above. In my opinion it could have used more. See it for the performances.

Cinematic Storytelling: Dreamgirls

It’s that time of year again when we give our filmmakers workshop. This year I’m using recent films because I’ve been told I rely heavily on the classics to drive my points across. So for these particular directing points I’m referencing Dreamgirls. I will be referencing Babel and The Departed also for the workshop and, yes, I will still be referencing the classics!

dd003 When I’m deep in production, I always make sure that I’m telling the story as seamlessly as possible. Hopefully, if I’ve trained my cinematic eye as I should have, I want to find the possible transitions within scenes because as the director, I want to keep the film moving forward as visually interesting as I can. This example above clearly shows how so much information can be given in one fluid transition.

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I like to find moments in the script that I can visually play with on set. It’s great to collaborate with my colleagues on how to tell the story and the background of our characters way beyond the words they say and the choices they make. If a script is really good, you’ve got a lot of themes and metaphors to play with. The example above is a great “visual” metaphor. The characters’ lives are played out on such a large stage that at a pivotal scene in the film, the lights dim much like a theatrical stage with a spotlight on the lone character. It just helps bring back the themes and the origins of the film.

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This example is pretty darn cool. In a heavily choreographed dance number in the film, the filmmakers decide to “choreograph” a little of the visuals with the sequence. It’s fascinating how the filmmakers use a lot of match-cuts and rhythmic editing to create a fascinating montage. This example above is a great match cut. As the dancers rehearse the dance number, the song climbs the top of the pop charts and the whole montage intercuts with scenes of urban landscape and the dancers.

Cinematic Storytelling: Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Pedro Almodovar was introduced to me early in film school and I instantly fell in love with his aesthetics. It’s just the way he composes and choreographs his films. When I saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I was inspired at the possiblities. I learned mise en scène–an often ridiculed term by the average moviegoer but for filmmakers, it is perhaps what makes a film truly a film. Mise en scène isn’t just visual style, it’s what a shot is composed of that helps tell the story, from the color palette of the scenery and costumes, down to the blocking of the actors and overall direction.

As a director, subconsciously or not, you’re always trying to create the perfect mise en scène. It finally sunk in when I was introduced to Pedro Almodovar’s work.

Definitely a hit-or-miss director by all means (I loved All About My Mother but didn’t really care for Bad Education) Almodovar can tell a story purely through visuals. His screenplays are engaging, odd, quirky and always full of coincidences and chance happenings. To add to his writing talents, Almodovar is a pure exhibitionist–always showing rather then telling. For directors, that’s key.

Here are just some shots that still linger in my head . . .

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Ivan work as a voice-over actor who dubs foreign films; the same voice he uses to sweet talk all his women are the same ones he uses in his work.  During this fabulous dream sequence, shot in grainy black & white, it visually brings home the idea of Ivan as a ladies’ man, holding the mic and speaking to girls who pass by through the mic. I love the structural patterns in the back.

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This is an interesting shot of Ivan’s ex-wife, Lucia, who is mentally unstable. As she “descends” down the stairs and growing curious of what’s happening upstairs, she starts to get trapped in the structural steel bars of the staircase. Genius.

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The Mambo Taxi! Now, the screen capture doesn’t do it much justice but I’ve never seen such a burst of color in a film before. Not since Dick Tracy. That was heavily stylized. Here the style is much more organic, and it works. You remember the mambo taxi and all its coincidental stops it makes throughout the course of the movie.

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It almost seems like all the props in the frame are meant to be there. I mean, a beach ball on a rooftop? But it works. Love the colors.

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Neat phone conversation. Love the patterns on their dress, and the backgrounds. Also, Pepa’s red phone throughout the course of the film becomes such an iconic prop. Is it because of how it simply pops on screen? How often it’s used by Pepa? It’s been thrown around, out the window, shattering glass, etc. I’ll never forget it how such an ordinary prop has become such a character in a film.

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The gazpaucho drink. That awfully dated pink dress. Those hideous eyelashes. Lucia is just a basket case.

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Ah yes, the traveling head. Love how Almodovar creates this shot of just Lucia’s head as she glides on a peoplemover near the end of the film. Creepy and completely mental.

The funny thing is I would have never picked up this movie have I not attended film school. You hear the title, you go, oh great, another foreign movie about strong women. But I love it. It just had such an affect on me early on in film school and to this day I think about what goes into a frame, and how much of what you put in the frame can tell the story without having one actor say a word.

Cinematic Storytelling: 12 Favorite Spielberg Moments

Jennifer, our wonderful advanced screenwriting professor constantly tries to instill this into our heads. Film is a visual medium and it is the job of filmmakers to exploit that to the best of their ability.

Then she brought up Spielberg, and of course, everyone in the class knew exactly what she meant. Spielberg is a master storyteller. Cinematically, if Hitchcock is the equivalent of Shakespeare (meticulously crafted plots with larger themes, etc.), then Spielberg is definitely Mark Twain. He is, at heart, a great American storyteller. Tall tales. Big ideas. Great stories.

So for class, we put our clip presentations on hold. (I was a little bummed because I prepped for my “Ocean’s Eleven” presentation.) Instead we were all asked to take a look at Spielberg’s films for the week, and list down our ten favorite Speilberg moments. It’s actually a pretty daunting task. “Just ten?” We all asked. Spielberg’s got millions of great moments! Jennifer said that when you look at your ten favorite moments, you’ll realize that Speilberg has made visually stunning films with iconic moments, and most of the time those scenes have no dialogue. Yet somehow, visually, the story advances, the characters progress. It’s purely cinematic.

She was dead right.

Here’s my twelve (yes, I added two more) favorite Spielberg moments.

12: Navorski sees the suit in “The Terminal.”

I’m not a sentimentalist and Spielberg gets very sentimental and shmaltzy for me sometimes but in his latest film, he just flourishes it with light cinematic touches, particularly this moment. Complain all you want about the “mature” Spielberg. He never fails to impress. When I saw that on the trailer it brought a tear to my eye. Spielberg (and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) are geniuses in my book.

11: Oprah as Sofia in “The Color Purple.”

Not a ‘moment’ per se, but definitely very iconic. Who would have thought that Oprah could act? She herself was such a graceful act as Sofia, and her portrayal stuck with me. But who could forget that unforgettable monologue when Sofia thanked Miss Celie? (“I know theyd is a God! I know theyd is a God!”) And the scene where all the townsfolk where calling her rascist names? She was such an iconic presence in that movie. But Spielberg is notorious for making supporting characters visual representations of either theme or conflict in his films. Quint in “Jaws” has fangs and looks like a shark. The little boy in “Close Encounters” looks like the aliens. Muldoon in “Jurassic Park” has green reptilian eyes and a very calculated demeanor, just like the raptors he tames.

10: Jim watches the attack in “Empire of the Sun.”

Spielberg’s direction is visually lyrical. The signature push-in to a close-up reaction shot. Jim caressing a Zero as welding sparks flare around him. American P51s bombing and strafing from an impossibly low altitude as Jim consumes the destruction in unbelieving rapture.

9: Father and Son Reunite in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Spielberg touches on the issue of broken families once more, and one of the best scenes I’ve seen in quite sometime is the exchange of Frank Abagnale Sr, and Jr. Spielberg knows a thing or two about the relationships of a father and son. Just take a look at “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But what makes this scene work is the performances are stellar (hats off to Christopher Walken on this part!) What really makes the scene even more poignant is how the scene is shot and portrayed. The Abagnales are humble, working-class people surrounded in such temporary elegance. What makes it even more eerie is that Father and Son are now dressed and groomed similarly. The comparisons are there, and Spielberg does it so subtlely. But I’m still captivated by Walken’s performance more than anything else.

8. Spielberg does his best Hitchcock impression in “Minority Report.”

This film ranks high in my “fave Spielberg films” list and choosing a favorite moment from this film (and most of Spielberg’s films) was very difficult. The movie itself is a visual treat. Sure, the scene with the Spyders is cool especially with the follow shot from the ceiling and the whole eye-switching scene is great but my choice scene is the moment where Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) reveals his findings to Burgess (Max Von Sydow). It’s surprise after surprise, and the editing is so flawless! If you haven’t seen it I don’t want to give it away but Spielberg and Kaminski light the scene with this golden glow making you feel as if the mystery has been solved. We visually peel the veneers and soon enough, we’re in for another surprise. The whole time the camera is so still. Great scene. Spielberg doing Hitchcock. What a marriage.

7. T-Rex! in “Jurassic Park”

Need I say more?

6. Mrs. Ryan hears the news in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Again, a film with great moments. Although, my favorite moment hands down is this scene. No dialogue. But we know what’s going on. True cinematic storytelling at its best.

5. The Women in the Showers in “Schindler’s List.”

This scene still haunts me. Again, one of those moments (and films for that matter) that I will never forget.

4. Making Contact in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Francois Truffaut as the dopey French scientist! Wow I wish I could have one of my film idols act in one of my films someday (Spielberg as a soft-spoken doctor! Soderbergh as the high-strung banker!) This film is full of youthful energy and childlike wonder, and it all accumulates to the final scene. Spielberg has been quoted saying he would have never made this film if it were given to him today because it’s so idealistic and utterly selfish in its theme (abandon those you love to pursue your dreams). I wonder how it would be like if he did direct it today now that he’s a family man?

3. Chief Brody makes faces in “Jaws.”

Like I said before, Spielberg’s films are all iconic and this film is no different. Eye-level water shots. John Williams’ theme. The opening sequence. But I’m a sucker for subtlety. It happens at the start of act two in the film and it’s my favorite scene because it’s visually progressing character. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) and his four-year-old son exchange funny faces. There’s no dialogue. Brody’s wife quietly watches the exchange. It’s a great moment because we know Brody’s in hot water with the mayor and townsfolk and all he needs to boost his confidence is the approval of his son. He asks him, “Give me a kiss.” The boy asks why. Chief Brody quietly pleads, “because I need it.” We’re now 100% with Brody in terms of objective. We know how it feels to be in deep trouble, and we know that sometimes all we need, is a little love.

2. Indy rolls on in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Again, need I say more?

1. E.T. and Elliott say goodbye in “E.T.”

cs_spielberg001Probably his most iconic film. Bicycles over the moon. Tall redwoods and dangling keys. Shafts of light and Reese’s pieces. This is Spielberg’s finest. Call it shmaltzy. Call it kiddie. It’s a movie with a lot of heart and it’s pure cinematic genius from start to end. What an exit for a character! As E.T. boards his ship and says goodbye, the door closes in on E.T.’s red, glowing heart. Elliott (dressed in bright red) watches on. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Well there you have it! Those are my 12 favorite Spielberg moments! What are your favorites?

Cinematic Storytelling: North By Northwest

I finished my first presentation on cinematic storytelling for advanced screenwriting last thursday. One of our assignments for class is to choose eight films we feel present a strong sense of cinematic storytelling, on top of our feature film assignment where we write a beat sheet, present a film pitch and a 30 page spec script! Lots of work.

The first film I chose is Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” which is my favorite Hitchcock film of all time. This was the film my father rented after I told him I wanted to pursue my dreams as a filmmaker back in the sixth grade for career day. The first thing he told me was “well, you gotta brush up on your Hitchcock then.” So this film really introduced me into a whole new level of cinema, and every time I pop on the DVD, I’m still enthralled.

The classic scene, and one of my favorite actors, Cary Grant. Grant plays ad exec Roger Thornhill who gets mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan. A simple story indeed. The simplicity of the story really proves Spielberg’s theory that films can only tell “simple stories well.”

Jennifer, our professor, kept reminding us basic truths about cinema. Movies are fables. They’re not novels. Movies can’t be looked at literally. They’re metaphoric.  It’s difficult to digest at first, but I see where cinephiles are coming from now. Filmmakers make the rules that will play out what we see onscreen.

Filmmakers need to ask the why. Jennifer said that all the other things young filmmakers focus on, like who made it, what awards did it win, who was in it, etc, isn’t important. It’s the use of technique and tools itself that filmmakers should always look out for. For example, Orson Welles non-stop opening sequence track shot in “A Touch of Evil” is cool and looks cool and is consider to be one of the best openings of a movie ever. But why did he use that shot? (In my opinion it is obviously to juxtapose the following sequences, with it’s quick cuts, handhelds, etc. If you’ve seen the film, I think you know what I mean.)The best filmmakers use the tools that best advances the story. Here’s my handout that I showed the class last week.

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Here’s an example of Hitchcock using the tools (in this case, camera angles and direction) to advance the story. Thornhill arrives at the U.N. building (1, 2) and the camera is at the same level as Thornhill. A big booming man, he exits the taxi, confident, ready to set things straight. (Shot 2 was a guerrilla shot by the way because Hitchcock didn’t get approval to shoot at the U.N., so he shot it across the street). He meets with the U.N. official and shows him a piece of information that might prove his true identity (3). The moment he opens the paper for the U.N. official to see, the official gasps (4) much to Thornhill’s surprise. As the camera pulls back, it’s revealed that the U.N. official has been stabbed (5) and onlookers are now concluding that Thornhill is the killer. The camera continues to pull back as crowds hover “over” Thornhill. By the time Thornhill exits the building (6) he has been reduced to the size of an ant, no longer a man with his powerful identity. Now just a nameless little human being.

There are so many other great sequences in this film. This particular sequence is so strong because the direction is so clear. Each shot advances the story. And it’s clear “why” Hitchcock chose those shots and blocked his actors the way he did. He has to constantly reduce Thornhill’s identity.

Anyway. If you haven’t seen this film, go see it! It’s definitely the film that “The Fugitive”, “Paycheck”and the “Bourne” films stem from.

This is definitely one of my favorite films of all time.