Manchester Film Festival 2017: Across the River Q&A

The director and lead actress answer questions about their film

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Click here if you would like to read a review to Across the River before the Q&A.

After the exciting world premier of Across the River, the director Warren Malone and the lead actress Elizabeth Healey were open to a short Q&A session with the audience. This is a film that has taken years to reach this point and they both seemed both overjoyed and relieved to be here. Below are some of the questions asked.

What was the inspiration for the film? Originally it was based upon a real life story although it was altered slightly. In the real life version there was physical intimacy that affected their independent lives causing a messy situation. In the film version there was an effort to hint at what those issues would be without them becoming a reality.

Was the film scripted or were there some improvisation? Actually the film was entirely improvisation. Perhaps a couple of lines here and there were written and the general story arc was set but apart from that the cast were free to make their own way to the conclusions. This has caused some to criticise the film as slow but it is more real this way, more human.

Did you as the director ever want to intervene? If it was terrible or completely off track but that was rare. Usually we’d let it go on because there was always something we could use. Each scene isn’t one take. It’s the combination of lots of scenes spliced together to create the best film possible.

How was it for you as the lead actress in this situation? It was completely freeing. Knowing what the end result is, but being able to get there however we wanted. The ability to try things out is a luxury that isn’t always afforded, so having the opportunity to improvise the entire thing is something I couldn’t pass up on. There were also restrictions. One of the more interesting was surrounding how much of the story you reveal. You have to drop story elements throughout the film. Too many early on and it will drag, too many late on and people will have fallen asleep before they get there.

In the final scene, when we find out whether they kiss or not, was that the idea from the start? We never thought they’d be together. They were together when they were younger so they are revisiting that youthful feeling. That said there were versions of the script pre-production where the outcome was different, and discussions during production on whether we should change our decision. Ultimately though the decision we made was probably the right one.

Was the film difficult to shoot? Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard. It all depended on how busy our locations were. We rarely got permission to film so occasionally we were moved on and would have to come back another day. In that situation we would usually send a crew member to distract them whilst we tried to get the footage we needed. Also something we didn’t anticipate is the fact that you have to pay to feature the London Eye in your film.

How long did filming take and how long was post-production? Well the main shoot was 12 maybe 13 days, with some extra pickups here or there. The post was years though. We too optimistically assumed people would invest in the film after we shot some of our footage. This was not the case and we had to be patient waiting for the money to pay people like the musicians. Some money was raised through crowdfunding which really helped too.

Having a Q&A after the showing really added to the community atmosphere of Manchester Film Festival and they were both incredibly charming, waiting outside the screen to answer any further questions the audience had.

Manchester Film Festival 2017: Screenwriting Panel

Elan Mastai charms the audience with his experiences as a screenwriter

The Manchester Film Festival is finally underway at the ODEON Cinema in The Printworks and one of the more anticipated non-film events is the Screenwriting Panel with Elan Mastai. Mastai, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for ‘The F Word’ at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards, evidently brought his effortless charisma with him, entertaining the audience through several minor technical difficulties.

As he began talking it quickly became evident that this would be far more than a traditional lecture type panel. Mastai was committed to making sure those who came received the most out of it that they possibly could, whether that be the writing side or the business side of the job. There were many interesting anecdotes and behind-the-scenes tidbits that were said and i’ll share some of those with you now.

One of the more striking points he made was in regard to studio interest on a screenplay, that not all interest is necessarily good interest. In particular this related to a couple of his earlier films. When starting out there was great eagerness to collaborate with any studio that came knocking, so much so that some of the ‘obvious red flags’ were missed. This resulted in a film that didn’t meet his initial vision. He described the process of turning his screenplay into a movie as ‘like walking through your own dreams’ but this was more akin to a nightmare. Even though he wasn’t personally proud of the end product, it was a learning process into the inner workings of the studio system and allowed him to be a bit more assertive in subsequent projects.

It was this assertion which gave Mastai the opportunity to be more than just the screenwriter for his films. When signing later movie deals he added a clause stating that he also had to be given the role of producer. This meant that only the studios that were truly committed to making his film would make offers and also that it gave him more creative input during the production period.

The interesting topic of screenplay rights versus novel rights was brought up during the Q&A session. For a screenplay, the writers ownership ends at the moment he, or she, signs the movie deal. When the movie is released, although he wrote the screenplay, it is for all intents and purposes not his. This is contrasted heavily with a novel. For his debut novel, Mastai retains the full rights and the publishing company simply licences it. This allows the author to retain the rights to the film unless they choose to sell the rights giving more control over their intellectual property.

While here mostly to talk about screenwriting, he did also discuss his debut novel ‘All Our Wrong Todays’. An interesting take on science fiction, it is set in 2016. A different 2016. One that people in the 1950’s expected us to have, with flying cars, robot maids and teleportation. The protagonist, through the use of an experimental time machine, ends up in our 2016. What we think is totally normal seems dystopian for him. The book follows this mishap and his journey trying to get back to his universe.

Overall this was a wonderful event for the festival with Mastai charming the crowd with his stories and jokes.

2017 Film Challenge – February

Another month, another recap

Improvements were seen all round in February, both in the amount of films watched but also in the number of first viewings, a total of 27 films were seen including 14 new. This puts me ahead of the pace towards my 250 film target with an impressive 50 films after two months. If the current rate continues I should reach my goal by the end of September which would be an immense personal achievement. I will write this post in the same general structure as last month with the complete list of the films followed next by my thoughts and finally a top 5. As the months pass I will add additional sections as needed.

Films Watched:

  • Hacksaw Ridge (2017)
  • Gold (2017)
  • Sully (2016)
  • Fargo (1996)
  • Dodgeball (2004)
  • Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  • Toy Story (1995)
  • Night at the Museum (2006)
  • The Departed (2006)
  • Hidden Figures (2017)
  • Dr Strange (2016)
  • Superbad (2007)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
  • Patriots Day (2017)
  • Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
  • The Founder (2017)
  • Whiplash (Short) (2013)
  • Allied (2016)
  • Passengers (2016)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
  • The Nice Guys (2016)
  • Taxi Driver (1976)
  • Pulp Fiction (1994)
  • The Big Year (2011)
  • The Internship (2013)
  • Tropic Thunder (2008) x2

There is a wide range in the type and genre of films here with older classics such as Tarantino and Scorsese’s Palme d’Or winners Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver contrasted with cult classics such as Superbad and Dodgeball. Some guilty pleasures such as the dependable charm of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson seeped through too in 2013’s feature length google advert that was The Interview. A major surprise for me was Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. After going into it blind hearing great things I was blown away by both Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s performances in this fantastic crime thriller.

If there are highs there must also be lows and Passengers takes the bacon. A futurist titanic set in the stars it had potential, especially featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in the lead roles. Unfortunately their chemistry could not overcome the flawed story leading to a rather bad film.

Here is my Top 5 for February

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. The Nice Guys
  4. The Founder
  5. Dodgeball

Special mention goes to Fargo, The Departed and Dr Strange

The Rise of Damien Chazelle

The Oscars are over and it’s time to reflect on Chazelle’s journey to the top

Now the dust has settled from the 89th Academy Awards we can begin to truly appreciate Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise to Hollywood’s front page. At the ripe old age of 32, he has become the youngest person in history to win the coveted Academy Award for Best Director. Three films is all it took to reach this incredible milestone, with each achieving dramatically more success than the one before it.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island to Celia and Bernard Chazelle (professors of history and computer science respectively) he was always drawn to filmmaking and as a child constantly wrote scripts. That was not his only passion however as whilst studying at Princeton High School he attempted to be a drummer in Princeton’s prestigious jazz program. An intense music teacher (the inspiration being JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash) and a self attributed lack of talent meant that keeping up was a constant struggle. By the end of high school a fork-in-the-road situation arose: attend a vocational music school and properly dedicate himself towards the art, or concede and follow another path. This other path was his old passion of film and he described music as ‘a detour, almost.’

After finishing high school, Chazelle went on to Harvard University to study for a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies. Throughout this time he attended as many film classes as possible culminating in his first film, ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench’, released in 2009. A completely improvised jazz musical, directed, written, produced, shot and co-edited by Chazelle. Originally planned as his thesis film, he ultimately left Harvard temporarily in order to focus on finishing the film. It set the tone projects to come, from it’s jazz based plot, to the musical collaboration with Justin Hurwitz. Shot completely in black and white 16mm film, this debut feature made just $35,556 at the box office but was met with wide acclaim scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84 out of 100 on Metacritic.

The next few years were not too comfortable for Chazelle as he was forced to become a ‘writer for hire’ to pay the bills. This resulted in several writing credits in films such as ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ and ‘Grand Piano’. Although continuing to create his own screenplays, none ever materialised into film and he cited this as a low point in his career, ‘I’d pour my blood, sweat and tears into them, and no one would like them’. One particular script caused him much frustration, mainly due to various aspects of the film that made it impractical, such as a dance sequence on a freeway. Unable to get the project off the ground he channeled his frustration into another script, one that drew on his past experiences with jazz drumming, titled ‘Whiplash’.

Initially he found difficulty showing the script to others as it felt too personal, but eventually ‘Whiplash’ gained interest from several producers, including Helen Estabrook (Labour Day) who suggested JK Simmons for the conductor role. Chazelle’s problems didn’t end there as no investors could initially be found, with the script featuring on a top 10 list of unmade films for 2012. To overcome this a proof-of-concept short was made, with JK Simmons in the role Estabrook proposed, and submitted to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the short film prize. The following year ‘Whiplash’ was released to universal praise, 94% Rotten Tomatoes and 88 out of 100 on Metacritic, a notable improvement from his first directorial effort also achieving $49 million in box office sales.

When award season came around it was hardly surprising that Chazelle’s second project got nominated for several Oscars, five in total including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons. There was some controversy surrounding one of his nominations in particular. Critics widely suggested that Whiplash was a sure winner of the Best Original Screenplay category but when the nominations were released the film was placed in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The reasoning behind this seemingly bizarre decision was to do with the concept short made a year prior. The Academy deemed the short film the original screenplay thus making the subsequent feature length film adapted. Any anger was short-lived as Whiplash took home three Oscars, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons.

Riding the wave of success Chazelle decided to revisit an old script that gave him frustration previously, La La Land. The idea was ‘to take the old music but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out’. The casting decisions almost led to a very different film with Miles Teller (who also starred in Whiplash) and Emma Watson in the lead roles. Both ended up departing from the project due to long contract negotiations and a commitment to 2017’s Beauty and the Beast respectively. As a result small adjustments were made to the script, making the leads older, struggling to achieve their dreams rather than just starting out. Chazelle immediately cast Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after Summit Entertainment bought the rights to the film calling them ‘the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple’.

Multiple aspects of the production caused trouble for those involved with the film. Firstly, Gosling didn’t know how to play the piano, at all. For three months during pre-production his job was to become adept at the piano and he called it ‘one of the most fulfilling pre-production periods I’ve ever had’. From the beginning of the film Chazelle pushed for the musical numbers to be filmed in a single take to emulate his inspirations Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. The consequence of this is several of the scenes took several days to shoot. One specifically, the six-minute long Prius scene had a one hour window each night to be filmed, called the magic or golden hour where the sunlight is softer and redder than normal. After eight takes the pair finally nailed it and ‘everybody just exploded’.

To get the tone of the film just right, Chazelle and Tom Cross spent nearly a year editing and that time was obviously well spent as when ‘La La Land’ was rolled out at the end of 2016 it received worldwide acclaim, with 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 out of 100 on Metacritic. At the 74th Golden Globes, usually used as an indicator for Oscar performance, it won every category it was up for, a record-breaking seven. All eyes then turned to the Academy, and when the nominations were released ‘La La Land’ equalled the record of fourteen with 1997’s ‘Titanic’ and 1950’s ‘All About Eve’. Sadly, Chazelle faired the same as ‘All About Eve’ winning six rather than the eleven won by ‘Titanic’. Those six wins included Best Director for Chazelle, Best Actress for Emma Stone and two for former roommate and long time collaborator Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ( for ‘City of Stars’).

It seems that Chazelle is not content to stop now as his fourth feature film is already in the works. Titled ‘First Man’, this biopic will follow the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Adapted from the book of the same name by Josh Singer (Spotlight) there will undoubtedly be high expectations from a director who has produced nothing less than excellence throughout his career. With Ryan Gosling already announced in the lead role this will not be a film to miss.

Review: Patriots Day

An exciting docudrama or an exploitation of tragedy

Patriots Day, depicting the events leading up to and immediately after the Boston Marathon Bombings, marks the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg (the other two being Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor). From the initial announcement, the film seemed destined to follow one of two paths: by-the-book action film paying vague attention to the actual events, or an inspirational retelling of how an entire city came together. Unfortunately this is neither and sits in the middle, taking what it pleases from each. The result is unnecessary and borders on exploitative as it uses recent tragedy and an all-star cast to sell tickets.

The majority of the negative feeling stems from Mark Wahlberg’s character, or rather characters. As the film progresses, it seems suspicious how Tommy Saunders is at the forefront of every major story event. The initial bombing, the command centre investigating, the first responder to the carjacking, the last stand battle and finally at the house where the younger of the two brothers is hiding in a boat, he’s at them all. But he’s not. Tommy Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s fictional. The reasoning behind this choice is clear. It allows more character development as we follow one hero as he battles the evil villains. The consequence of this choice is that it becomes painfully comical. There are over 2100 police officers in the Boston Police Department and yet this single officer is there each time.

Four years is all it took to transform tragedy into an evening of entertainment at the cinema. In two more I suspect we’ll see a film documenting the Paris attacks, probably featuring Vincent Cassel. Following 2012’s Argo or even Peter Berg’s last directorial effort Deepwater Horizon, there was great potential for a gritty, as-it-happened docudrama. Sadly aside from Wahlberg, several other plot elements were also invented or exaggerated as the original story must not have been captivating enough for the general audience. For example the tense standoff in Watertown looked more like a Michael Bay movie with multiple cars erupting in flames contrary to every report of the incident. Not every relationship shown actually existed either, MIT officer Sean Collier’s (Jake Picking) romance with a student at the university never happened. It was added so that you’d care just enough about the character that when he ultimately met his downfall it would be more shocking.

There were redeeming qualities to the film. The way real phone and security camera footage was interwoven in relevant scenes throughout the film repeatedly reminds you how this truly did happen, making the initial aftermath to the marathon bombs all the more chilling. Shortly after, the hijacking of Dun Meng’s car was arguably the most gripping part of the film. Sheer edge-of-seat tension unfolds as Meng slowly works out a risky escape strategy. In a few short minutes, he becomes the most human, the most authentic. It is at this moment that the attackers, the Tsarnaev brothers, seem most human too. It is all to easy to paint the generic terrorist caricature in film and Berg instead makes them almost relatable. A bold move which is shown during the carjacking as the younger of the brothers is more interested in whether the car has bluetooth or an aux cable so he can play his music.

The aftermath to the bombings was complete disarray and Peter Berg embodies this throughout Patriots Day. Why was Saunders suspended? How did the Tsarnaev brothers go from stoners to subversives? And why did the final speech make no sense at all? The supposed docudrama brought up too many questions and too few answers. The most important question of all, ‘What is the purpose of this film?’, is doomed to also remain unanswered.

Review: Hidden Figures

An Ordinary film about the extraordinary

Coming two years after the overly sentimental St.Vincent, Theodore Melfi returns to the directors chair for Hidden Figures. The inspiring true story of how three African-American women fought against gender and race discrimination to assist in arguably the greatest human accomplishment of the time, launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. An event which turned the tide of the space race and united America in it’s desire to reach the moon.

The three women depicted in Hidden Figures begin as ‘computers’, someone who performs long and often tedious mathematical calculations prior to the invention of electronic computers. They all aspire for greater things but due to the societal hurdle of skin colour find great difficulty in getting acknowledged, let alone respected. Katherine Johnson’s talent (Taraji Henson) has incredible mathematic ability, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has natural leadership skills and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is a fantastic engineer. All three actresses are commanding in their roles, which isn’t entirely positive as the weaker performances are more noticeable with the weakest of all being Jim Parsons’ portrayal of head engineer Paul Stafford. A character whose only purpose in the film is to reinforce the fact that people of colour face discrimination. Melfi must have doubted the audience’s ability to denounce racism on its first appearance so decided to make Stafford repeatedly, and to no additional story benefit, belittle Katherine.

Parsons’ character is not the only story element that if removed would have made the film less forgettable. Another example of this is the needless romantic subplot involving Katherine and Army Officer Jim Johnson. Romance for the sake of romance is usually for one of two reasons, either the scriptwriters needed an extra 15 minutes runtime and got lazy, or the film needed to be more accessible for the general public (to bring in those box office returns). Maharshala Ali (Moonlight) who plays Johnson is a great actor and it is a shame that his talent is wasted in this role.

Whilst there were many scenes showing discrimination against the women of the West Computing wing, and people of colour as a whole, one particular example was overplayed. After Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group, a collection of the greatest scientific and engineering minds in America, she is constantly on the receiving end of racial prejudice. This occurs to such an extent that they are made to seem villainous to fit with the generic Hollywood narrative: character faces adversity, almost succumbs as a result but is eventually victorious. There is nothing new or original here. Just another underwhelming ‘based on a true story’ film that seems to hit the cinema screens every few weeks.

In years to come it will be the films that took risks that will be remembered and sadly Hidden Figures took none. The outcome is an ordinary film about the extraordinary. One that uses the leads to push an agenda rather than treat them like the pioneers they were. Yet another addition to the pile of potential classics.

2017 Film Challenge – January

The beginning of my 250 films challenge

When the clock struck midnight on 2016 it was time to work on my new years resolution, to gain as much knowledge on film as possible.  In order to achieve this I decided to set my set the target of watching 250 throughout they year, as well as becoming more aware of how the behind the scenes magic is engineered. An average of just under 21 a month is required to hit my goal and I hit the ground running watching 23 in January. I’m still debating whether to only count unique watches or if repeat watches should count too although this will be something I’ll mention in a subsequent update. Each month I will list every film I’ve watched in order and then add any thoughts along with a top 5 list of my favourites.

Films Watched:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Silence (2017)
  • The Big Lebowski (1998)
  • The Big Short (2015)
  • Casino Royale (2006)
  • Zombieland (2009)
  • Source Code (2011)
  • A Monster Calls (2017)
  • Assassin’s Creed (2017)
  • Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
  • 21 and over (2013) x2
  • The Martian (2015)
  • La La Land (2017) x2
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  • Moneyball (2011)
  • Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
  • Zootropolis (2016)
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
  • Whiplash (2014)
  • Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

January was a month of discovery for me, most notably watching my first, second and third Wes Anderson film. I was instantly in love with his unique and quirky style. Warm colour palettes, recurring actors/themes and the way he works symmetry into his scenes all stood out to me with Anderson quickly becoming one of my favourite directors. Similarly the two most recent Damien Chazelle films were both fantastic, it’s just a shame that his catalogue is so small at this time.

Not everything was a good watch though with a couple of massive disappointments. Scorsese is a fantastic director in my opinion however each of his religious movies have not quite hit the mark with me. Silence was without a doubt a beautifully shot film, it just lacked the necessary substance to hold my interest. Assassin’s Creed was one of the biggest let downs since Independence Day: Resurgence in my opinion. Another film which held so much promise but ending up far short of my expectations.

Here is my Top 5 for January:

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Whiplash
  3. La La Land
  4. Fantastic Mr Fox
  5. Moonrise Kingdom

Special mention goes to Moneyball, The Big Lebowski and The Martian which were all wonderful.