Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Francis Ford Coppola: Into the Darkness

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Vietnam war Apocalypse Now was released 33 years ago this week. The making of the film is the stuff of legend. Intended to be a 14-week shoot in the Philippines, starting in the spring of 1976, the production ran into immediate problems with logistics, weather and other mishaps conspiring against the filmmakers. In addition Coppola fired his leading actor, Harvey Keitel, after just two weeks, replacing him with Martin Sheen who was himself on the brink of an alcohol-fuelled breakdown. On Sheen’s arrival, chaos had overtaken the production. Coppola was still working on the script, firing people at will while crew members were succumbing to various tropical diseases. Meanwhile the helicopters used in the combat sequences were regularly recalled by President Marcos to fight in his own war against anti-government forces. Things got worse when Marlon Brando arrived for filming, overweight and unprepared. Then shortly after filming began, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. A traumatised Coppola subsequently had a mental breakdown, with the director apparently threatening to commit suicide on more than one occasion. The tale of the making of Apocalypse Now was chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse which drew on behind-the-scenes footage shot by the director’s wife Eleanor Coppola, which was intercut with new interviews with the original cast and crew. Looking back on events several years later, Coppola’s wife remarked:

‘It was a journey for him up the river I always felt. He went deeper and deeper into himself and deeper and deeper and deeper into the production. It just got out of control… The script was evolving and the scenes were changing – it just got larger and more complex. And little by little he got out there as far as his characters. That wasn’t the intention at all at the beginning.’

The  following exchange is taken from an interview with Francis Ford Coppola from 1979 for Rolling Stone magazine in which the director discusses the writing and strained production of Apocalypse Now:

Would you do it all again?

I’m tempted to say no. I really think there’s a limit to what you ought to give a project you’re working on. It’s not worth it, it’s really not worth it. I don’t know that I would be able to avoid doing it again, but I’m forty years old instead of thirty-six. My leg hurts, my back hurts, my front hurts, my head hurts. I’ve got nothing but problems. I mean, I could be the head of KQED [San Francisco’s public television station] and do interesting little experimental things and not be such a wreck.

There were times when I wished I was working for someone else so I could quit – but I don’t think I ever thought of cutting my losses and coming home. There were a lot of troubles. Marty’s [Martin Sheen] heart attack [which delayed filming even further] . . . severely traumatized my nervous system. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. If he’d gone home to the U.S. for treatment, he might not have come back – his family might not have let him. I was scared shitless. The shooting was three-quarters done; it was all him, what was left.

Firing my [original] lead actor [Harvey Keitel] – that was bad. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do: sure, it jeopardizes the production, but it can also ruin an actor’s career, to be fired like that. It was a very, very hard decision. But I just pulled the plunger – I did that a lot on this movie. Still do it. I’ve done it before with people – but that’s another form of saying you're going to really try to get it right.

Did making this movie change your idea of what it means to be a filmmaker?

It changed every idea I have on anything I might not do or be. It enlarged my mind in terms of possibilities. It would be very hard for me to go and direct the new Paddy Chayefsky screenplay now. After Apocalypse Now and the Godfather pictures, especially the two of them together, I began to think in terms of the kind of movie that is impossible: movies that are . . . fourteen hours long, that really cover a piece of material in a way that justifies it, shown in some kind of format that makes sense.

Ten years ago, John Milius wrote a script: ‘Apocalypse Now.’ You still share script credit with him. How has the movie changed?

I think the script, as I remember it, took a more comic-strip Vietnam War and moved it through a series of events that were also comic strip: a political comic strip. The events had points to them – I don’t say comic strip to denigrate them. The film continued through comic-strip episode and comic-strip episode until it came to a comic-strip resolution. Attila the Hun [i.e., Kurtz] with two bands of machine-gun bullets around him, taking the hero [Willard] by the hand, saying, ‘Yes, yes, here! I have the power in my loins!’ Willard converts to Kurtz’ side; in the end, he’s firing up at the helicopters that are coming to get him, crying out crazily. A movie comic.

I’ve read the comic.

Have you?

Well, I’ve read comics like that one, sure.

That was the tone and the resolution. The first thing that happened, after my involvement, was the psychologization of Willard – which I worked on desperately. Willard in the original script was literally zero, nobody. I didn’t have a handle: that’s why I cast him with Steve McQueen at first. I thought, well, God, McQueen will give him a personality. But I began to delve more into Willard. I took Willard through many, many instances in which I tried to position him as a witness going on this trip – and yet give him some sort of personality you could feel comfortable with, and still believe he was there.

Marty approached an impossible character: he had to be an observer, a watcher. A lot of reading dossiers, a totally introspective character. In no way could he get in the way of the audience’s view of what was happening, of Vietnam. That wasn’t going to work for Keitel. His stock in trade is a series of tics – ways to make people look at him.

The first scene of the movie – Willard is in his Saigon hotel room, waiting for a mission, drunk, losing control, finally attacking a mirror and cutting his hand open – is described in your wife’s book (‘Notes’) almost as a breakdown on Sheen’s part, certainly not action that was planned.

Marty’s character is coming across as too bland; I tried to break through it. I always look for other levels, hidden levels, in the actor’s personality and in the personality of the character he plays. I conceived this all-night drunk; we’d see another side of that guy. So Marty got drunk. And I found that sometimes, when he gets drunk, a lot comes out. He began to dance, he took off his clothes – this was ten minutes of the most incredible stuff – and then I asked him to look in the mirror. It was a way of focusing him on himself – to bring out the personality by creating a sense of vanity. And that’s what he punched: his vanity. I didn’t tell him to smash his hand into the mirror.

Many of the best things in the movie – the helicopter attack, the surfing motifs – are from Milius. The Do Lung Bridge sequence – which came partly from one of Michael Herr’s Esquire articles – was from Milius. Many things were changed. The concept that the guys on the boat would get killed – that was new. From the bridge on, it’s pretty much Heart of Darkness and me.

Was the film based on ‘Heart of Darkness’ in Milius’ script?

Very vaguely, then: A man was going up a river to find a man called Kurtz. There were few specific references beyond that. I decided to take the script much more strongly in the direction of Heart of Darkness – which was, I know, opening a Pandora’s box.

Michael Herr was brought in after the shooting in the Philippines was completed. Did he write all of the narration?

He dominated it; he dominated the tone. The hipster voice Willard is given – that’s Michael.

Was it from ‘Dispatches,’ in which Herr makes such a point of Vietnam as ‘a rock & roll war,’ that the idea came to use the Doors’ ‘The End’?

No. I knew Jim Morrison, in film school; he came to my house once – this was before he’d had a record out – with some acetates, demos, asking if I could help. I tried; I didn’t get anywhere. But the idea of using the Doors came from ‘Light My Fire.’ That was from Milius: Kurtz’ people would play ‘Light My Fire’ through their loudspeakers, to jazz themselves up. In the end, there’s a battle, and the North Vietnamese regulars come charging in to ‘Light My Fire.’ I went to the Philippines with that ending!

How did the characterization of Kurtz evolve?

Marlon arrived; he was terribly fat. As my wife says in her book, he hadn’t read the copy of Heart of Darkness I’d sent him; I gave him another copy, he read it, and we began to talk. There were a lot of notes that we compiled together. I’d give him some – he’d write a lot himself. I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking.

We had an idea: Kurtz as a Gauguin figure, with mangoes and babies, a guy who’d really gone all the way. It would have been great; Marlon wouldn’t go for it at all.

Marlon's first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is our guilt!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.

Finally, he shaved his head – and that did it. We’d go for it – we’d get there. That terrible face. I think it’s wonderful that in this movie, the most terrifying moment is that image: just his face.

There seems to be no conventional suspense in the movie. Even in the scene where Willard kills Kurtz; that’s an orchestrated scene, full of crosscutting and metaphors, like the killings that end ‘The Godfather.’ Is that the way you wanted to make the movie?

Maybe I’m stupid, but I always wanted the film to be graceful. My very first notion when I began to think of thestyle of the film – of course, style was going to be the whole movie – I wanted to sweep, not go chaaa! chaaa! I wanted it to have grace. I chose Vittorio Storaro [Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematographer in The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900] because I wanted the camera to just float across the boat. That is always shot handheld, because there’s no building dolly tracks in the water. The music would be Tomita-like [a Japanese synthesizer composer] for that reason.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say that style was going to be the whole movie.

When I first thought of doing Apocalypse Now, and I read Milius’ script, I was looking for a clue as to what kind of movie this was going to be. I was very concerned about style, because I knew it wouldn’t be a realistic style – I knew it would have some sort of what I’ll call extension to it, but I didn’t know what. People used to ask me, well, what’s this movie gonna be like? I said, well, it’s gonna be very stylized. And they said, well, like what? Like what director? And I would say, like Ken Russell. I wanted the movie to go as far as it would go. I was prepared to have to make an unusual, surrealist movie, and I even wanted to.

But you didn’t.

Well, surrealist. What do you call or what do you not call surrealist?

Watching the movie, I never had the feeling that I was partner to a dream – and that’s how I would define the experience of surrealism.

Well, then, what would you call the desire to extend the action so that it had another, different reality –or an extended reality, from just pure reality – that made use of what was going on?

The emergence of a different reality is raised as something that could happen – that could take over Willard, suck him in. There’s an interesting shot in Kurtz’ temple, a copy of ‘The Golden Bough’– a book about ancient myth and practice of ritual regicide. A man became king; after a year, if anyone could kill him, he became king. After Willard kills Kurtz, he emerges from the temple. Kurtz’ whole community is gathered there, and Willard is carrying two symbols of kingship – this is how I saw it –the book, Kurtz’ memoirs, and the scepter, the weapon he throws down when he refuses the kingship. The community kneels before him, and it’s clear that if Willard wanted to take over, he could have. And then he consciously rejects that choice. If he had not, then he, and maybe we, would have been swallowed by the extended realities you’re talking about. But he rejects that. That seemed very clear. Is that not what you meant?

No . . . when I finally got there, the best I could come up with was this: I’ve got this guy who’s gone up the river, he’s gonna go kill this other guy who’s been the head of all this. Life and death. Well, I have a friend, Dennis Jakob, we were talking – what to do? – and he said to me, ‘What about the myth of the Fisher King?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s The Golden Bough.’ The Fisher King – I went and got the book, and I said, of course, that’s what I meant. That’s what was meant by the animal sacrifices [that occur among Kurtz’ people as Willard murders Kurtz]. I had seen a real animal sacrifice, by the headhunters we had hired. I looked at the blood shoot up in the air, and I’m thinking – this is about something very basic. I’ve gone up this whole river trying to figure out this movie, and I don’t know what’s the matter: What do I have to express, what do I have to show to really show this war? There are millions of things you have to show. But what it really all comes down to is some sort of acceptance of the truth, or the struggle to accept the truth. And the truth has to do with good and evil, and life and death – and don’t forget that we see these things as opposites, or we want to see them as opposites, but they are one. It’s not so easy to define them – as good or evil. You must accept that you have the whole.

Kurtz is consciously participating in the myth of the Golden Bough; he’s prepared that role for Willard, for him to take his place.

He wants Willard to kill him. So Willard thinks about this: he says, ‘Everyone wanted him dead. The army . . . and ultimately even the jungle; that’s where he took his orders from, anyway.’ The notion is that Willard is moved to do it, to go once more into that primitive state, to go and kill.

He goes into the temple, and he goes through a quasi-ritual experience, and he kills the king. The native people there were acting out in dance what was happening. They understood, and they were acting out, with their icons, the ritual of life and death. Willard goes in, and he kills Kurtz, and as he comes out he flirts with the notion of being king, but something . . . does not lure him. He goes, he takes the kid back, and then he goes away and there’s the image of the green stone face again [the face of an ancient Cambodian goddess from Kurtz’ temple complex]. He starts to go away, and then the moment when he flirted with being king is superimposed. And that’s the moment when we use ‘the horror, the horror.’

How do you see what Willard is going through at Kurtz’ compound?

I always tried to have it be implied in the movie that the notion of Willard going up the river to meet Kurtz was perhaps also a man looking at another aspect or projection of himself. I always had the idea of Willard and Kurtz being the same man – in terms of how I made my decisions as to do whatever we did. And I feel that Willard arriving at the compound to meet Kurtz is like coming to the place that you don’t want to go – because it’s all your ghosts and all your demons.

Willard’s a murderer, an assassin, and no doubt when he’s alone in the bathroom, he’s had some moral thoughts about whether that’s good: to go kill people you don’t even know. So I’m thinking Willard has been involved – as maybe Kurtz has – on a moral quest, which is to ‘Is what I have done, or what I am doing, moral? Is it okay?’ So when Willard gets to Kurtz’ place, it’s his nightmare. It’s his nightmare in that it’s the extreme of the issue that he has to deal with – bodies and heads – and Kurtz is the extreme of him, because Willard’s a killer. Here, now, Kurtz – who has gone mad – has become the horror, the whole thing, which is no more than an extension of the horror that we’re looking at on every level. Willard has to come to terms with this – and what Brando really tells him, the way I see it, is, I finally saw something so horrible . . . and then at the same time realized that the fact that it was so horrible was what made it wonderful . . . and I went to some other place in my mind, in which I became Kurtz, who is nuts.

And pathetic. One of the most beautiful lines in Michael Herr’s narration is when he says, ‘Kurtz had driven himself so far away from his people at home’ – the idea that you could go so far that you couldn’t get back, even if you wanted to get back.

That’s what I was trying to do with Willard in that last section. I always had this image, over and over again, of being able to stare at the something that was the truth and say, ‘Yes, that is the truth.’ Somehow a face was always important to me, and that’s why I liked just looking at Brando’s face for ten minutes or whatever. Remember Portrait of Dorian Gray? I mean, it was like ripping back the curtain – ahhhhh! There it is. And that’s the way I felt about Vietnam. You just look at it, you open your eyes and you look at it, and you accept it if it’s the truth. And then you get past it.

One line that seems to be coming out, following the L.A. screening in May and the Cannes screenings – and I’m speaking of the American press, since that’s all I’ve seen – is ‘The movie is terrific for the first hour or so: it’s so exciting, it’s well done, spectacular, it looks as if it were worth the money that was spent, you can see the money on the screen.’  And then, ‘When the picture get to Kurtz, it becomes muddled and philosophical and pretentious – it falls apart.’ That line is remarkably consistent. (And has remained so in most of the reviews that have appeared since the film was officially released.)

Audiences, and therefore certain writers, really know the rules of the different kinds of movies – and whether they want to admit it, in the first hour and a half of this movie, they’re locked into a formula. It’s a formula movie; you just get locked into the slot and it’ll take you up the river. And then, at a certain point, it doesn’t develop into the action adventure that it had set you up for. In my mind, the movie had made a turn I wouldn’t alter – it curved up the river. I chose to go with a stylized treatment, up the river into primitive times – and I eliminated everything in the script that didn’t take you there. It now takes you into various difficult areas, which you have to engage with a little. They’re riding down a big sled on a very formula movie, and they want it to resolve, and kick ’em off, just like movies are supposed to do, and it doesn’t do it. It’s like someone takes them off the slide and says, okay, now walk up the steps, and they don’t want to do it.

I’m not saying they are wrong in feeling that. I think some do and some don’t. But they would have preferred that it just went easy, without any difficulties – let the movie do it all. And I couldn’t do it in the end.

Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?

I couldn’t, I don’t think – I tried. I mean, I couldn’t give them an ending better than I did. I tried, and I’ve been trying and trying and trying. And if I could ever imagine how to do it, I would get out the goddamn film and I’d do it.

I think we live our lives hoping – impatient – for a time when things are resolved. I think that time will never come for any of us – and that’s part of the irony, even in this movie. Although there seems to be a resolution of some kind: that the healthy devour the sickly, and there is some sort of life/death, night-becomes-morning cycle taking place – to me the irony is that we stand on the edge, on the razor blade, all the time, and that’s why Willard looks to the left, looks to the right, and you hear, ‘The horror, the horror.’ ‘The horror, the horror’ is precisely that we are never really comfortable understanding what we should do, what is right and what is wrong, what is rational behavior, what is irrational: that we’re always on the brink.

‘The horror, the horror’ at the end, the fact that I wanted to end it on choice, because I think that’s the truthful ending – We hope for some sort of moral resolution about Vietnam and about our part in it, our participation in it. At the [true] end, you don’t have a resolution. You’re in a choice, still, between deciding to be powerful or to be weak. In a way, that’s how wars start. The United States chose: It wanted to be powerful, wanted to be Kurtz, in Southeast Asia. It chose not to stay home. But choice was just the only way I thought it could end.

Heart of Darkness ends with a lie. After Kurtz’ death, Marlow goes to Kurtz’ girlfriend, the intended, and she says, ‘What did he say before he died?’ And Marlow says, ‘He mentioned your name,’ when in fact what Kurtz said was, ‘The horror, the horror.’ So I feel all lousy because I think the ending I had on the movie was the truth, but this ending that I’m going to put on it now is a lie – and I justify it to myself because Conrad would have ended with a lie, too.

- Francis Ford Coppola interviewed by Greil Marcus.  Rolling Stone,  November 1, 1979

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Approaching the Sequel: Syd Field Interviews James Cameron

(Terminator 2: Directed by James Cameron)
In 1992, screenwriting teacher and author Syd Field approached writer-director James Cameron for an interview. The following excerpt is from the discussion on the origins of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

He paused for a moment, took a sip of coffee, and said that ‘from a writing standpoint, the things that interested me the most were the characters. When I was writing Ripley for Aliens there were certain things known about her and her experience, but then we lost track of her. In the sequel I was picking her up at a later point and seeing what the effects of those earlier traumas were. With Ripley there was a discontinuity of time, but experientially it was continuous for her because she just went to sleep, and when she woke up, time had gone by.

‘It was much different, much more interesting with Sarah. I had to backfill those intervening nine years, so I had to find efficient ways of dramatically evoking what had happened to her. The tricky part was having it all make sense to a member of the audience who didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the first film. Basically, I had a character popping onto the screen in a certain way, and therefore had to create a back story for that character. I told myself I had to write the script just like there had never been a first film. The sequel had to be a story about someone who encountered something nobody else believes, like the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Kevin McCarthy swears he’s seen something shocking, and nobody believes him; then he starts telling the story.

‘In Terminator 2, the first time we meet Sarah, she’s locked up in a mental institution, but the real question is, is she crazy? The advantage of a sequel is that you can play games you can’t play in the original. For example, I know the audience knows the Terminator is real. So they’re not going to think she’s crazy. But the question still remains: Is she crazy? Has the past ordeal made her nuts? I wanted to push her character very far.

‘The strange thing that happened in the wake of the film is that a lot of people made the mistake of thinking I was presenting Sarah Connor as a role model for women. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wanted people to invest in her emotionally, to feel sorry for her, because she had been through such hell. And people made a straight-line extrapolation from Ripley to Sarah.

‘They’re very different characters. Ripley’s been through a trauma, but she has certain innate characteristics of leadership and wisdom under fire; she’s a true hero. Sarah’s not really a hero. She’s an ordinary person who’s been put under extreme pressure, and that makes her warped and twisted, yet strengthened, in a sad way. It’s like you don’t want this to happen to her. The initial image of her had a big scar running down the side of her face, and we actually did makeup tests with scars, but it would have been a real nightmare to deal with a scar like that in production on a day-to-day basis. I really wanted her to look like Tom Beringer in Platoon (Oliver Stone). And Linda was up for it, because the last thing she had done was play Beauty in Beauty and the Beast for three years. It’s a tribute to her as an actor that she was able to pull off that severity without the help of any makeup whatsoever.’

In theater the main ingredient of modern tragedy is an ordinary person who is in an extraordinary circumstance; the situation creates the potential for tragedy. Sarah Connor is no hero; she’s an ordinary person who just happens to be placed in extraordinary circumstances. The situation has the potential for tragedy, but in this case, the Terminator, the Schwarzenegger ‘character,’ becomes the hero.

That was another major problem Cameron had to confront in the sequel. ‘There’s a strange history that happened with the first film,’ he explains. ‘A year or two after The Terminator came out, people remembered the film fondly. They remembered Schwarzenegger from the other roles he had played, like Commando or Predator (Jim Thomas, John Thomas), where he was running around with a machine gun in his hand, spraying bullets everywhere, like he had in The Terminator. But there was this curious blurring of distinction that he was the bad guy in The Terminator.

‘That made me very nervous,’ he says. ‘I knew the ‘bad guy being the hero’ could get me into some pretty dangerous territory, morally and ethically. I absolutely refused to do another film where Arnold Schwarzenegger kicks in the door and shoots everybody in sight and then walks away,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I thought there must be a way to deflect this image of bad guy as hero, and use what’s great about the character. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I thought the only way to deal with it would be to address the moral issues head-on.’

For the screenwriter, the challenge is to find a way to deal with this situation so it springs out of the story context and is based on the reaction of character. The dramatic need, the dramatic function of the Terminator is to terminate, to kill anybody or anything that gets in its way. Because he is a cyborg, a computer, he cannot change his nature; only a human or another robot can change the program. So to change the bad guy into a good guy requires changing the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the action. Cameron had to find a way to change the context yet keep Terminator’s dramatic need intact.

‘The key was the kid,’ Cameron explains. ‘Because it’s never really explained why John Connor has such a strong moral template.

‘For me, John was pushed by the situation where he sees the Terminator almost shoot the guy in the parking lot. I think everybody invents their own moral code for themselves, and it usually happens in your teens based on what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen in the world, what you’ve read, and your own inherent makeup.’

John Connor intuitively knows what’s right ‘but can’t articulate it,’ Cameron continued. ‘John says, ‘You can’t go around killing people,’ and the Terminator says, ‘Why not?’ And the kid can’t answer the question. He gets into a kind of ethical, philosophical question that could go on and on. But all he says is, ‘You just can’t.’

‘I thought the best way to deal with this was not be coy about it and hope it slides by, but to tackle it head-on, make this a story about why you can’t kill people,’ continued Cameron.

He paused a moment, stared at the blinking light on the telephone. ‘What is it that makes us human?’ he asked. ‘Part of what makes us human is our moral code. But what is it that distinguishes us from a hypothetical machine that looks and acts like a human being but is not?

‘Essentially you’ve got a character associated with being the quintessential killing machine; that is his purpose in life. Devoid of any emotion, remorse, or any kind of human social code, he suddenly finds himself in the strangest dilemma of his career. He can’t kill anybody, and he doesn’t even know why. He’s got to figure it out. He’s got to, because he’s half human. And he figures it out at the end. The Tin Man gets his heart. ‘Once I clicked into that, I saw what the whole movie was going to be about.’

Every screenwriter knows that there are four major elements that make up the visual dynamics of screen character. One, the main character or characters must embody a strong dramatic need.

Dramatic need is what your main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the screenplay. What drives your character through the obstacles of the story line, through the conflicts of plot? In the case of Sarah Connor, John Connor, and the Terminator, the dramatic need is to destroy the future by destroying the one vital computer chip that will determine that future. To destroy that computer chip they will have to destroy the creator of that chip, Miles Dyson, along with the manufacturing entity, Cyberdyne. They will also have to destroy the Terminator 1000, sent back from the past to protect the future. It is this dramatic need that pushes the entire story line through to its completion.

In some screenplays a character’s dramatic need will remain constant throughout the entire story, as it does in Terminator 2. In other screenplays, the dramatic need will change based on the function of the story. In Witness, for example, the dramatic need of John Book changes after Plot Point I. The same thing happens in Thelma and Louise. If the dramatic need of the character changes, it usually will occur after the Plot Point at the end of Act I.

The second element that makes good character is a strong point of view, the way your character views the world. Point of view is really a belief system. ‘I believe in God,’ for example, is a point of view. So is ‘I don’t believe in God.’ So is ‘I don’t know whether there is a God.’ All these are belief systems.

What we believe to be true is true. For Sarah, nothing can alter her belief that the future is already here. On August 29, 1997, the nuclear holocaust will be unleashed and sweep across the planet like some wild wind destroying everything in its path. That we know from The Terminator. This inevitability defines Sarah’s point of view and motivates everything she does.

The third thing that makes good character is attitude – a manner, or an opinion. People express their attitudes, or their opinions, and then act on them: Dr. Silberman has the opinion that Sarah Connor is loony and acts on that. And he’s not ready to change that opinion, no matter what she says or does, at least not for another six months of her incarceration.

The fourth component that makes good character is change: Does the character change during the course of the screenplay? If so, how does he or she change, and what is the change? Can you trace this character arc from beginning to end?

In discussing Terminator 2, Sarah ‘does not change that much,’ Cameron said, ‘although she goes through a kind of epiphany after she experiences her character crisis [the moment when she cannot kill Miles Dyson]. But her crisis happens relatively early in the story.’

But what if your character is a robot? If you consider the prospect of an emotional change occurring within a robot, you find there’s an immediate contradiction. A robot cannot change unless it has been reprogrammed by someone or something outside itself. In this case, as Cameron has mentioned, there will be a major change within the Terminator. At the beginning of the screenplay, Schwarzenegger’s dramatic need is simple: to protect and save John Connor. That is the first directive of the warrior machine, to preserve itself so it can function.

During the story there is a change in the Terminator’s ‘character,’ and his dramatic need changes to fit the moral beliefs of John Connor. And we know the Terminator cannot change his need, he ‘cannot self-terminate’; he needs John Connor to do that for him. This means that the Terminator has to disobey his own built-in program.

To do that, Cameron said, ‘he must make a command decision, and it is the only true act of free will that he has in the entire film.’

– ‘Approaching the Sequel’ by Syd Field. From Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 90–97. 


Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Akira Kurosawa on ‘Stray Dog’

Stray Dog (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A bad day gets worse for young detective Murakami when a pickpocket steals his gun on a hot, crowded bus. Desperate to right the wrong, he goes undercover, scavenging Tokyo’s sweltering streets for the stray dog whose desperation has led him to a life of crime. With each step, cop and criminal’s lives become more intertwined and the investigation becomes an examination of Murakami’s own dark side. Starring Toshiro Mifune, as the rookie cop, and Takashi Shimura, as the seasoned detective who keeps him on the right side of the law, Stray Dog (Nora Inu) goes beyond a crime thriller, probing the squalid world of postwar Japan and the nature of the criminal mind. – (via Criterion)

The following is a brief excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography, in which he discusses the writing and production of Stray Dog.

Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone. 

I first wrote the screenplay of Stray Dog in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime. This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I’d be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so. Far from it. It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it’s perfectly understandable that this should have happened. A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay with­out using narration. But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of. At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expres­sion into the script.

For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chrono­logical time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows: ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Head­quarters, First Division,’ I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.

Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed. On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we’d shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.

At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule. The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the completed film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week’s hard work. Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making. Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew.

– Excerpt from ‘Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography’ (Vintage Books, 1983)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
In Luis Buñuel’s satiric comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of middle-class diners sit down to dinner but never manage to start their meal, their attempts continually frustrated by a surreal sequence of events both real and imagined. The film remains one of Buñuel’s more popular and identifiable works. Buñuel's memorable set-pieces propel a hallucinatory narrative that moves with relentless comic drive. In some ways the film is a companion piece to The Exterminating Angel, Bunuel’s complex and dark 1962 masterpiece about bourgeois diners who can’t leave a dinner party after they’ve finished their meal.

Soon after the release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972 the Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes wrote the following celebrated article on Buñuel, who was a close friend. The piece was originally published in The New York Times:

SEEING: In his sixties, Buñuel finally achieved the choice of subject matter, the means, the creative freedom so long denied him. But Buñuel has always proved hardier than the minimal or optimal conditions of production offered him; he constantly remarks that, given a $5-million budget, he would still film a $500,000 movie. An obsessive artist, Buñuel cares about what he wants to say; or rather, what he wants to see. A really important director makes only one film; his work is a sum, a totality of perfectly related parts that illuminate each other. In Buñuel’s films, from Un Chien Andalou to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the essential unifying factor is sight. His first image is that of a woman’s eye slit by a razor and throughout the body of his work there is this pervading sense of sight menaced, sight lost as virginity is lost; sight as a wound that will not heal, wounded sight as an interstice through which dreams and desires can flow. Catherine Deneuve’s absent regard in Belle de jour is calculated. She is constantly looking outside the confines of the screen, enlarging the space of the screen, looking at something beyond that isn’t there, that probably connects the two halves of her life.

But Buñuel’s violent aggressions against sight actually force us back to his particular way of seeing. His world is seen first as a grey, hazy, distant jumble of undetermined things; no other director shoots a scene from quite that neutral, passive distance. Then the eye of the camera suddenly picks out an object that has been there all the time, or a revealing gesture, zooms into them, makes them come violently alive before again retiring to the indifferent point of view.

This particular way of seeing, of making the opaque backdrop shine instantly by selecting an object or gesture, assures the freedom and fluid elegance of a Buñuel film. Sight determines montage; what is seen flows into what is unseen. The camera fixes on a woman’s ankle or the buzzing box a Korean takes to a brothel; the woman’s shoes lead to desire or the Korean’s stare to mystery, mystery and desire to dream, dream to a dream within it and the following cut back to everyday normality has already compounded reality with the fabulous; the meanest, most violent or weakest character has achieved a plurality of dimensions that straight realism would never reveal. The brutal gang leader in Los Olvidados is redeemed by his dream of fright and solitude: A black dog silently races down a rainy street at night. And you cannot altogether hate the stupid, avaricious people in The Discreet Charm; their dreams are too funny; they are endowed with a reluctantly charming dimension; they are doomed, yet they survive.

Cruel and destructive: Such were the adjectives reserved for his early films; now they are elegant and comical. Has the dynamite-flinging miner of Asturias, as Henry Miller called him, mellowed so much? On the contrary: I believe his technique has simply become more finely honed, his sense of inclusiveness through sight wider. More things are seen, understood, laughed at and perhaps forgiven. Besides, the author is debating himself. Is that a Buñuel stand-in who drones in The Milky Way: ‘My hatred towards science and technology will surely drive me back to the despicable belief in God?’

Sight connects. Buñuel has filmed the story of the first capitalist hero, Robinson Crusoe, and Crusoe is saved from loneliness by his slave, but the price he must pay is fraternity, seeing Friday as a human being. He has also filmed the story of Robinson’s descendants in The Discreet Charm, and these greedy, deceptive people can only flee their overpopulated, polluted, promiscuous island into the comic loneliness of their dreams. Sight and survival, desires and dreams, seeing others in order to see oneself. This parabola of sight is essential to Buñuel’s art. Nazarin will not see God unless he sees his fellow men; Viridiana will not see herself unless she sees outside herself and accepts the world. The characters in The Discreet Charm can never see themselves or others. They may be funny, but they are already in hell. Elegant humor only cloaks despair.

So in Buñuel sight determines content or, rather, content is a way of looking, content is sight at all possible levels. And this multitude of levels—social, political, psychological, historical, esthetic, philosophic, is not predetermined, but flows from vision. His constant tension is between obsessive opposites: pilgrimage and confinement, solitude and fraternity, sight and blindness, social rules and personal cravings, rational conduct and oneiric behavior. His intimate legacies, often conflicting, are always there: Spain, Catholicism, surrealism, left anarchism. But, above all, what is always present is the liberating thrust that could only come from such a blend of heritages. Certainly no other filmmaker could have so gracefully and violently humanized and brought into the fold of freedom, rebellion and understanding so many figures, so many passions, so many desires that the conventional code judges as monstrous, criminal and worthy of persecution and, even, extermination. The poor are not forcibly good and the rich are not forcibly evil; Buñuel incriminates all social orders while liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the maimed, the necrophiles, the lesbians, the homosexuals, the fetishists, the incestuous, the whorish, the cruel children, the madmen, the poets, the forbidden dreamers. He never exploits this marginality, because he makes it central to his vision. He has set the highest standards for true cinematic freedom.

The Exterminating Angel (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
And finally, this respect for freedom of his characters is translated into respect for the freedom of his audience. As they end, his films remain open, the spectator remains free. A flock of sheep enters the church of The Exterminating Angel as civil strife explodes in the streets. An empty carriage rolls down a wooded lane while the horses’ bells jingle in Belle de jour. Nazarin accepts a gift of a pineapple from a humble woman as the drums of Calanda start pounding and the whole structure of the priest’s mind turns and opens toward the future. Viridiana sits down and plays cards with her cousin and the cook as they listen to rock recordings. A bell with the face of her victim and victimizer telescopes Tristana back to the very beginning of her story. The mad husband in El zigzags his way down a monastery garden where he thinks he has achieved peace of mind. The six listless characters in The Discreet Charm, driven by an irrational urge, trudge down an unending highway.

If the end in a Buñuel film can mean exactly the contrary, the beginnings of his films can be terrifying. L’Age d’Or starts with a scorpion and that scorpion, encircled by fire, is committing suicide with its own poisonous tail. It is the center of a flaming eye. Buñuel has written: ‘The camera is the eye of the marvelous. When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames.’

DYING: We walk in silence down a wintry Parisian boulevard. Buñuel is a friend, a warm, humorous, magnificent friend, and one can be with him without having to say anything.

We reach his hotel and go up to his room. He always reserves the same one; the windows open on the black and grey tombstones, the naked trees of the Montparnasse cemetery. It has rained all day, but at this hour of the afternoon a very pure, diaphanous light seems to drip from the fast moving clouds. Buñuel starts packing for the flight back to Mexico City.

Every now and then, he gazes at the trees and murmurs: ‘I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.’

– Excerpted from ‘The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel’, originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1973. ©1973 by The New York Times Company.