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: The Founder

An overnight sensation 30 years in the making

The idea that John Lee Hancock’s latest film was probably just another narrative about making it in America meant that my anticipation for it was rather low. But as the film unfolded I was caught off guard by its surprising density.

The Founder, which has interesting ironic undertones, explores the conceptual origins of fast-food and the empire of the food-chain McDonald’s. It is 1954 when we are introduced to the insatiable salesman Ray Kroc (convincingly played by Michael Keaton). Struggling and fast-paced, he is the embodiment of the free market system and good old American capitalism. Unsuccessfully attempting to sell milkshake makers to diners, an order of eight from a San Bernardino burger stand piques his interest. What distinguishes this thriving restaurant from the ones that he struggles to sell a single one to? He drives all the way from Illinois to find out.

The stand, of course, is the original McDonald’s. The whole concept of the busy place confuses Kroc, he can’t seem to grasp that his food is presented to him almost instantaneously after ordering it, or that no crockery is required, or he can eat it where ever he pleases. The movie addresses the shift of fast food and the initial learning curve consumers experienced in the next sequence superbly, and will also be our first encounter with the McDonald brothers. Featuring terrific performances by John Caroll Lynch (The Zodiac) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson) as Mac and Dick, they manage to convey a down-to-earth pair who simply strive to have their own piece of the American Dream after years of persistence and hard work. Except they came up with a notion that would revolutionise America and they didn’t even know it.

Over a particularly well shot scene of dinner between our three main interests, a fascinated Kroc listens to the brothers recount their long and arduous process to coming up with their unique system. Hancock unfolds the brothers’ past through a series of flashbacks of their thirty-year struggle. The story rises to an electric climax as they calmly come to explain their Eureka moment by pinpointing the weaknesses of competitors, such as poor quality food and slow service that attracts undesired clientele (here it is teenagers that are the problem). It is Dick who localises where they are losing and could potentially save time and money. From past experience, he assesses that certain items are guaranteed to sell, and by pure logic decides to strip the menu down to the basics such as hamburgers, fries and milkshakes. The next point is a stroke of genius, simultaneously in the filmmaking and in real life, as the scene shows Dick arbitrating his staff around a mock-up chalk kitchen, manoeuvring it over and over in order to create their pioneering time-effective system. This is the stuff capitalist dreams are made of.

Concise, minimal and easy to keep cleanliness and quality in check, the McDonald brothers are perfectly content with their creation. But Kroc thinks differently, and has the gut feeling he has stumbled upon a rare opportunity. His love for business immediately latches onto the fact that the McDonald’s structure can be endlessly replicated, urging the brothers to “franchise it”. Here the direction puts the viewer in a conflicted spot, aware of the potential Kroc sees, yet faced with the brothers’ sincere attachment to their creation and high-quality standards. Soon enough, Kroc comes up with just the right hook to reel them in— American values. Each town he drives by has two things: a church and a court house. Both places where the American Family congregate, both with symbols associated to these common values: The Cross and the American flag. Kroc insists that the “Golden Arches” of McDonalds could be of the same meaning, a place where “decent, wholesome people come together”.

After a tug-of-war business relationship between the three, Kroc’s hunger for more pushes him to cease all decency and figures out how he can pull the business from under the McDonald’s brothers’ feet through real estate trickery. In a poignant, and for the audience, uncomfortable phone call between the brothers and “The Founder”, Kroc hits them with the disheartening truth: “I’m national. You’re local”, succinctly addressing the at times chilling American capitalist drive.