Archive | December, 2014

The 11 best films about life insurance

12 Dec
Ned Ryerson, life insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day. So good I could watch it again, and again, and again...

Ned Ryerson, life insurance salesman, in Groundhog Day. So good I could watch it again, and again, and again…

Who knew life insurance could be so fascinating? I didn’t, until I was asked by The Guardian to compile a list of the top 11 movies about life insurance. It has provided the engine for many a film noir, but also featured in comedies such as Groundhog Day and Terry Gilliam’s brilliant short film.

Read the surprisingly interesting top 11 on the Guardian website.

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The London Screenwriters’ Festival: 10 amazing seminars in one handy guide

10 Dec
London Screenwriters' Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

London Screenwriters’ Festival founder and director, the inspirational Chris Jones, takes to the stage

The London Screenwriters’ Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. That’s right, the biggest and best event for screenwriters happens not in LA, not in New York, but right here. London, Hollywood indeed. I’ve written up all the best talks, screenings and seminars I attended at this year’s: that’s ten blog posts. Read ’em, one by one. You’ll laugh! You’ll learn!

Behind The Scenes

The Silence of the Lambs, with screenwriter Ted Tally. Discover the secrets of the famous jail scene between Clarice and Hannibal, how Jodie Foster got the part, and whose head is really in the jar. Part one, click here; part two, click here.

Finding Nemo, with co-writer David Reynolds. Find out: Why is the vegetarian shark called “Bruce”? How did Sean Penn narrowly miss being in the film? And why did Pixar have to make their animation, in parts, deliberately bad?

The Lost Boys, with director Joel Schumacher. Find out: How was Rambo an influence on the movie? How you do you get maggots to act? Why must Surf Nazis die? Where did Kiefer Sutherland go in full vampire make-up?

Great talkers

Joel Schumacher. The veteran director explains how Woody Allen changed his life, how the studio took fright at Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and how “if I can do this, you can do this too”.

Lynda La Plante. The writer of Prime Suspect, who is currently working on the prequel, tells how she made it as a screenwriter. Find out why her key tip is to “write like a transvestite trucker”.

Tony Jordan. The creator of Life on Mars and the forthcoming Dickensian talks about his long, illustrious and surprisingly accidental career. He explains how he nearly gave up after just a few episodes of EastEnders (he went on to write 250), and how Life on Mars came about.

Charlie Brooker. The sweet, avuncular, cuddly uncle of screenwriting – just kidding! – trains his bile on blockbusters (“like staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together”) and writing itself (“I love having written, but I hate the process of writing”), and talks about the Black Mirror Christmas special.

Writers’ guides

Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay, with Pilar Alessandra. Sigourney Weaver’s part in Alien was originally written for a man. But though it can be useful to ask yourself “what would a man typically do?” when writing for women, you’re missing out on a whole lot of depth if that’s all you do…

The Art & Craft of Dialogue, with Claudia Myers. She outlines the five pillars of what makes a good scene, and the four pillars of what makes good dialogue within that scene. Learn how even the way you address someone can matter: “In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her ‘Mrs.Robinson’.”

Bonus section: last year’s highlights

A whole lotta Joe Eszterhas: The straight-talking author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, who used to be paid $4 million for a script, was so entertaining and larger-than-life he could not possibly fit into one blog. So I posted several, including a, ahem, blow-by-blow account of Basic Instinct, his troubles with Mel Gibson, and his tips on writing.

Creating Character, with Pilar Alessandra. How to brainstorm a film structure from scratch, based solely on character (fascinating!); plus the three dimensions to character, and how to introduce a character in a script.

The Epic Spec: How To Explode Onto The Hollywood Scene, with Stuart Hazeldine. “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”

Steve Pemberton. One of the League Of Gentlemen team gives a local talk for local people. Discover, too, how a director he didn’t previously know persuaded him to act, for free, in his short film, as a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia.

Graham Linehan. Absolutely one of the top TV comedy writers working today: the man behind Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd reveals how Robert McKee screwed him up, and what the Three Moments rule is for TV comedy.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2015 is pre-registering now, and already 37% sold out. Find out more here.

The Theory of Everything to do with Oscar odds

9 Dec
Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking, with Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, in The Theory of Everything

The Theory Of Everything is only recently out in the States, at first opening in just five theatres, and isn’t even released in the UK until Jan 1, but already it’s generating Oscar buzz: William Hill has just slashed the odds on it winning to the same level as Interstellar. About the relationship between a young Stephen Hawking and his wife, it has everything Oscar loves: disability, a veneer of intellectuality, and a romance. “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his,” runs the tagline.

It’s certain to make young Eddie Redmayne, whose dashingly freckled good looks attracted attention in Les Misérables, the next major British Hollywood star. And it’s tough luck for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game has been left in the backwash; especially since Benedict played Stephen Hawking first, ten whole years ago. (For the time when I went on set with Hawking himself, click here.)

The odds released today by William Hill make for interesting reading. Boyhood is the clear favourite, while Gone Girl trails in tenth place, despite the heat it generated on release. A bet on Rosamund Pike at 11-1 seems like a good flutter.

Here’s the list in full:

Best Picture: 4-7 Boyhood, 10-3 Unbroken, 5-1 The Imitation Game, 7-1 Birdman, Selma, 10-1 Interstellar, The Theory Of Everything, 16-1Foxcatcher, Whiplash, 20-1 Gone Girl, 25-1 Inherent Vice, Mr Turner, 33-1 A Most Violent Year, American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 40-1 Trash, 50-1 Big Eyes, Fury, Into The Woods, Rosewater, Suite Francaise, Wild, 66-1 Kill The Messenger

Best Actor: 4-6 Michael Keaton – Birdman, 13-8 Eddie Redmayne – The Theory Of Everything, 9-2 Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, 9-1 David Oyelowo – Selma, 10-1 Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, 12-1 Jack O’Connell – Unbroken, 14-1 Timothy Spall – Mr Turner, 25-1Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler

Best Actress: 1-5 Julianne Moore – Still Alice, 10-3 Reese Witherspoon – Wild, 6-1 Amy Adams – Big Eyes, 10-1 Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, 11-1 Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, 12-1 Felicity Jones – The Theory Of Everything, 14-1 Jennifer Aniston – Cake, 16-1Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 20-1 Jessica Chastain – The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them, 25-1 Hilary Swank – The Homesman

Best Supporting Actress: 1-5 Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, 6-1 Laura Dern – Wild, 9-1 Emma Stone – Birdman, 12-1 Carmen Ejogo – Selma, 12-1 Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game, 14-1 Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year, 14-1 Meryl Streep – Into The Woods, 25-1Carrie Coon – Gone Girl, 25-1 Jessica Chastain – Interstellar, 25-1 Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice, 25-1 Kristen Stewart – Still Alice,33-1 Dorothy Atkinson – Mr Turner, 33-1 Julianne Moore – Maps To The Stars, 33-1 Sienna Miller – American Sniper

The Silence of the Lambs: discover screenwriter Ted Tally’s key scenes (part two)

8 Dec

Slightly delayed, here is the final part of screenwriter Ted Tally talking us through the key scenes of The Silence of the Lambs, from a live screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. To read part one, click here

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Buffalo Bill tricks his next victim into his van: This shows Jonathan Demme’s sensitivity as a film-maker. He’s about to knock his victim out with his fake cast, and Demme doesn’t show it, it’s off-camera. It’s partly a matter of taste, but also that an audience’s imagination is more powerful than anything you can show them.

The coroner scene: We shot this in Rural Valley, Pennsylvania. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we were stood around waiting for trucks in the mist, all 100 townspeople gathered to wait for the circus to arrive, and Jonathan looked at me and said, “So you think you want to direct?” The elderly coroner was one of the producers, Kenny Utt (above right). The head in a jar was another of the producers (above left). I’m not kidding! With Jonathan it’s like family, he likes to get everyone involved. Roger Corman, Jonathan’s mentor, plays the head of the FBI.

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Buffalo Bill tucks his penis between his legs and dances around the basement: It was very courageous of Ted Levine to take this part. He didn’t work for years after this. True! He was only offered slasher parts. The character of Buffalo Bill was more fleshed out in the book than in the script, unfortunately. In the movie we never get the inside into his tormented childhood, and how he was created. There was controversy because a lot of people thought it was homophobic. But he’s not meant to represent a group of anything. He’s a unique, strange specimen. A lot of the controversy was because he had a white poodle named Precious – with hindsight it should have been a different breed or a different name.

screaming lambs

The screaming of the lambs story: Now we’re getting on to Memphis which is almost like a different movie, it starts to be an action movie. This scene about the spring lambs originally called for a flashback – it was going to be the last thing we shot, in May. But after shooting this scene, Jonathan sent me the rushes and said, “If I cut away from their faces, I’ll be drummed out of the Directors’ Union. Look at Jodie Foster – she could win an Academy Award for this scene [as indeed she did].” I said if I had known there would be no flashback, I would have written it differently. But Jonathan said “It’s all there.”

finger

Lecter touches Clarice’s finger: It’s one of my favourite moments in the movie. You also see Jonathan and the cinematographer pushing the camera further and further through the bars, until there is no distance between them. Jonathan did challenge me on this whole scene. He said, “It’s the climactic scene, but – we’ve had dinner, I know you like a rack of lamb, and so do I. Why are we going to care?” I said, “I don’t care about the lambs, but she does, and I care about her.” Jonathan accepted that.

escape

Lecter escapes: Again, Jonathan said to me, “How can we cut away from Clarice for so long? It breaks your own rule about focusing always on her.” I said “I know, but the escape in the book is such a great scene there is no way we could not have it in.” You can break all the rules, except for one: “Don’t bore the audience.” Jonathan used to say, “I’d rather have the audience confused for four minutes than bored for four seconds.”

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Clarice and Buffalo Bill play cat-and-mouse in the dark: That sequence was shot in one continuous evening, we finished at 5am. It had to be done in one night. Jodie is as exhausted as she looks. Everything you can get out of an actress came out of her.

tropics

A change of ending, in which Lecter phones Clarice from somewhere tropical: The original ending had Chiltern hiding out in his Chesapeake home, and the camera travels over his grounds, and you see dead security guards, Chiltern taped to his desk, and Lecter’s there. Jonathan said “No, he’s a scumbag but he’s a human being; we have to give at least the illusion that he might get away.” So I said, “We can have him on some tropical island, with Chiltern on holiday.” Jonathan said, “You mean we’d have to send a production crew, including you and me, to somewhere hot and tropical, in February? This is a good idea!”

That’s my last of many posts from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. What a wonderful three days that was. For info about next year’s, click here

The Silence of the Lambs: discover screenwriter Ted Tally’s key scenes (part one)

2 Dec

The Silence of the Lambs is one of those films where everything just came together. Stars, story, direction, even publicity — the film’s success was helped rather than hindered by protests against the killer being portrayed as somewhat camp. Scary enough to be horror, twisty enough to be a thriller, intelligent enough to be mainstream, and featuring a strong female character in the lead role, it grossed more than $270 million worldwide and was only the third film to win all five major Oscars.

During a screening at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, Ted Tally, gave his behind-the-scenes commentary on key scenes. There’s too much good stuff for one blog, so here goes part one, including a long section about the famous first meeting between FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins):

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The title sequence shows Clarice running, alone, in the FBI’s training ground: I didn’t write the title sequence. I know that directors tend to throw out any title sequences we write anyway. And when Jonathan Demme got down to the Quantico training area, he called me and said this is amazing, we’ll get lots of good footage. It works really well. The audience thinks: Why is she running? Why is she so sweaty, so intense? What is she running from, and what is she running to? She’s a warrior in training for a quest she doesn’t yet know what it will be.

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Called in to see FBI boss Jack Crawford, Clarice takes the lift: There’s a real feeling of being a woman in a man’s world. There’s this great shot where she gets into an elevator and she is surrounded by these great hulking men. The Quantico interior scenes were actually shot in the cast and crew hotel in Pittsburgh.

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Jack Crawford (Scott Glen) sends her off to see Hannibal: The script’s description of Crawford is “His face is a roadmap of places we would not bear to visit.” The FBI figured this film would be like a recruiting poster for the FBI. Every once in a while something would bother them, like they’d say “We’d never send a trainee out into the field by herself”, and we’d say, “Well, without that we have no movie!”

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We meet Hannibal Lecter: Anthony Hopkins said he wanted to stand. In the original book and script he was lying down reading Italian Vogue. Anthony said “No, that would be rude; he knows she’s coming. He should be standing there like he’s just beamed down from a spaceship.” He never changed a syllable or punctuation mark. When he says “Go all the way to the F… B… I” that’s exactly how it was written in the script. Jodie Foster did have a line suggested to her at Quantico – “I’m a student, I’ve come here to learn from you.” She phoned me and asked it was okay to change it.

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The cell is made of plexiglass: As originally written, both in the book and in the screenplay, it was heavily barred with an extra inner layer of steel mesh. But when it came to shooting time and the set was built, Jonathan said “we can’t shoot through this, there’s too much clutter, what do we do?” And the production designer, Kristi Zea, said on the spot, “we’ll put up a plexiglass shield”. The day before shooting! She was brilliant. And now the actors couldn’t hear each other, so she said “all right, ventilation holes”. This also gives the advantage of double reflection shots.

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As Clarice leaves, another inmate flicks his spunk into her hair, causing Hannibal to help her: When you’re writing dialogue for a scene like that you worry because it’s terribly long, there’s semen thrown in her hair, and lines like “I can smell your c**t”. I wondered, can we really put this in the first ten minutes? But it’s a shot across the bows to the audience, saying don’t get too comfortable, we might do anything. The scene is also very theatrical: you need classically trained actors. I couldn’t think of anyone but Anthony Hopkins to cope with that artificial, brittle dialogue. And there’s a lot of close-ups, so I need really, really, really smart actors, not just actors pretending to be smart. Jodie Foster majored in Renaissance Studies at Yale, and you can’t fake that.

Jodie phoned me half-way through writing and said, “Maybe someday you’ll write a part for me.” I said, “Maybe I am right now.” She said, “I know you are.” She was campaigning to get the part, way in advance! Jonathan wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, he had made her last film [Married To The Mob] and was still a little in love with her, but she found it too dark. I kept saying, “Jodie Foster, Jodie Foster!” Jodie said to Jonathan, “I know I’m not your first choice for Clarice, but I will be your last.” I asked Jonathan what changed his mind, and he said, “When I saw that sturdy little frame walking towards me for a meeting about the role with her briefcase, I thought, that is Clarice Starling.”

To read part two, click here.