Tag Archives: Oscar

Foxcatcher: wrestling with doubts

20 Jan

Foxcatcher

It’s rare that I feel totally out of step with the world on a movie, but Foxcatcher is one such. Why all the raves? Steve Carell gives a very good, very understated performance as the socially awkward billionaire who decides to fund America’s 1988 Olympic wrestling team, in which his creepiness, aptly, creeps up on you. But part of the pleasure is the sheer surprise at seeing the comedian take on such a downbeat role. As Samuel Johnson said of female preachers, “It is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not that it is done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Chuck Tatum is similarly cast against type, suppressing his usual breezy charm as the dour wrestler Mark Schultz. He is aiming for a portrait of brooding physicality, but just comes across as entirely absent. Only Mark Ruffalo as his brother is allowed to play his usual role, as the dishevelled, easygoing nice guy, and does so with effortless rumpled charisma.

As for the direction, by Bennett Miller of Moneyball and Capote fame, it lost me from the off. I often like slow films where nothing much happens. Not this one. As son Sam said afterwards, with his usual perspicacity, “I’ve seen so many indie films recently where slowness is mistaken for depth, and where all the shots are in shallow focus to foreground the actors, to emphasise how good their performances are.”

With no one to root for, and a meandering narrative (it’s based on a true story, which does not always make for satisfying drama), I found the whole thing just alienating. Maybe I’d feel more kindly inclined if expectations hadn’t been raised so high by its five Oscar noms. But if you want to see an Oscar contender this week, I’d sooner recommend Birdman, Whiplash, The Theory Of Everything or (probably – I haven’t yet seen it) American Sniper.

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4 articles about Whiplash, the little film that could

9 Jan
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash, described as "Full Metal Jacket set at Juilliard"

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash, described as “Full Metal Jacket set at Juilliard”

A really terrific little movie opens next week: Whiplash, about a young drumming prodigy’s fractious relationship with his terrifyingly perfectionist mentor, which although made in 19 days on a budget of $3 million is attracting Oscar buzz. I was commissioned by the Guardian to write four different pieces on the film, which is especially close to my heart as my son is an ace drummer himself (check out his band Venus Envy on Soundcloud).

Whiplash’s young writer-director had lofty goals, setting out to do for drumming what Martin Scorsese once did for boxing. But in many ways it’s less like Raging Bull than like Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam masterpiece: producer Jason Reitman describes the film as “Full Metal Jacket set in Juilliard”.

Check out my Guardian pieces, which came out today:

— Why Whiplash is not just about drumming, but a psychological thriller, sports/war movie and mismatched buddy movie all in one. Discover the “Dead Poets Society from hell”.

— How do you make an Oscar-worthy feature in just 19 days? Despite cracked ribs and a car crash, this is how Damien Chazelle got it done.

— Both lead actors in Whiplash underwent an extraordinary transformation for their roles. From Lon Chaney Jr to Holly Hunter and Daniel Day-Lewis, discover the ten biggest transformations in film history.

— Einstein himself said that “genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work”. From Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Marie Curie, here are ten great men and women who owe as much to perspiration as inspiration.

The Theory of Everything: two stars are born

5 Jan

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne shine in The Theory of Everything.

At the beginning of The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking describes the study of cosmology as “a kind of religion for intelligent atheists”. Hollywood star-watching could be seen as “religion for dumb atheists”.

Nevertheless, here I go again.

There’s a huge buzz around Eddie Redmayne for the film – on Friday William Hill shortened the odds on him winning the Golden Globe from 10/11 to 1/3 – and it’s richly deserved. At the start he is boyishly charming and rogueishly handsome, deploying a killer smile under thick glasses and a tousled fringe. That clichéd coup de foudre when his eyes first meet those of his future wife across a crowded room actually convinces.

His gradual transformation into the wheelchair-bound genius stricken with progressively degenerating motor neurone disease we now know as Stephen Hawking is astonishing. If Daniel Day-Lewis could win an Oscar for My Left Foot, it’s possible to hope that Redmayne could win for this.

And not just one star is born here, but two – it’s a binary system, to use Hawking terminology. Felicity Jones has a more difficult role to shine in, as The Dutiful Wife; but she displays a rare combination of vulnerability and strength as she is torn between her own desires and her need to stand by her man. It’s her film every bit as much as his.

Last year was a good one for British film, starting off with 12 Years A Slave. In a smaller way, this is about as good a start to 2015 as one could wish for.

When I met Stephen Hawking: click 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):

SotL_0007

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.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: this is Andy’s Serkis, and these are his monkeys

18 Jul

Caesar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”

Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2;  the 3D animation of Toy Story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.

It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.

Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?