A brilliant post from twentyfourframesasecond
There are few directors I admire as much as Martin Scorsese, but Sidney Lumet is definitely one of them. So it was a case of cinephile nirvana when I came across a priceless gem of an artifact last weekend at the limited-engagement Scorsese Exhibition at The Deutsche Kinemathek: a letter from Lumet to Scorsese.
Dated April 23rd, 1980, it is a response to the manifesto Scorsese had authored on the abysmal state of archival film elements held by various studios and the dire need for urgent action on the film preservation front. The very legacy of cinema is at stake here, he had argued a few weeks prior in a call-to-arms letter to hundreds of his colleagues, a veritable list of filmmaking legends, including Losey, Spielberg, Fassbinder, Coppola, Kurosawa, Wenders, and Powell among many others. The original letter was presented at the exhibition, along with a slew of supportive responses he had received, all signing a petition and offering their help. “Every year the blue of the sea fades in colour, while the blood spewing out of Robert Shaw’s mouth gets more red”, read Spielberg’s response in reference to the state of the negative for Jaws.
I was stunned when I got to Lumet’s letter. To put things in context, at this point in his career, Sidney Lumet is already a bonafide legend. It has been 23 years since 12 Angry Men, he has 26 feature films under his belt, including indisputable masterpieces like The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network, alongside other groundbreaking films like The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, and The Offence. Yet he is the one filmmaker who takes this call to action to heart most, with the energy and enthusiasm of an idealistic kid (which, in many ways he remained until his dying day). Instead of patting Marty on the back and passively offering support, he expands on his manifesto, bringing into focus the poor manufacturing standards of the raw negative film of the era produced by Kodak (complacency that comes with industrial monopoly is the likely cause, Lumet hypothesizes), and suggests a concerted effort at a boycott of Kodak stock until the issue is taken seriously.
But what he does next is truly astonishing: proposing an industry-wide conference to seriously discuss using video technology for both image acquisition and projection. “Something I know is possible”, Lumet says. This is 1980. Video capture technology is still in its infancy, with the Hollywood establishment, of which Lumet should be a part (at this point he was already a three-time Academy Award nominee), only regarding it with a mixture of disdain and apathy. This is even before a seemingly indestructible, post-Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola was laughed at and scorned for daring to dream of “electronic cinema” as he dubbed it in 1982.
It would take another twenty years before Hollywood started catching up with Lumet. “I could cut below the line costs minimally 50% on video tapes”. He was, throughout his unparalleled career, a consummate professional who loved and thought sacred the field he always considered himself lucky to be in. He just wanted to make movies, and we are so immeasurably blessed that he did.
Go on and celebrate the great man’s life and legacy. Put on Serpico, turn off the lights, and lose yourself. And when the film is finished, click here (http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/mp3/567), listen to a wonderful Q&A on the making of a classic, and let Lumet charm you with his warmth and infinite passion. What are you waiting for?
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Unused Taxi Driver poster made months ago for SpokeArt’s Scorsese tribute show. The decaying mental state of a New York cabbie seen through his operator’s license.
“Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful.” —Paul Schrader: Notes On Taxi Driver
How I Make Films: Interview with John Huston, Film Quarterly, Fall 1965. I must say that this is one of the best interviews with John Huston.
How does the script get written? Do you do it alone? And how long does it take you?
Again, there are no rules. I’ve written scripts and made pictures out of them in two weeks. At other times I’ve worked a year and a half just on a script. The Maltese Falcon was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book. On Treasure of Sierra Madre, I wrote the script in about 3-4 months, but I had had quite a long time to think about it before. The actual making of the film didn’t take very long, but I had had the idea of making it since before the war. It was the first film I made after the war.
What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?
Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the pople who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality—I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often-at least, sometimes—delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.
What should an actor’s relationship to the camera be?
He must have an awareness of the size of his gesture, his motion, in relation to the size that his image will be on the screen. It isn’t absolutely an essential quality, but it is very useful. I don’t mean that I tell him the focal length of the lens I’m using and expect him to adapt himself accordingly, but a good actor has an almost instinctual awareness of these things. When an actor comes from the stage, he usually has to make adjustments of this kind. He doesn’t need to project, he doesn’t need to make his voice heard over a distance. He can speak very quietly. He can be more economical in every way before the camera than he could be on stage. And he can work with the small details of his face.
Let’s see if we can follow your filmmaking method through logically and go on to a description of the process of turning the script into film.
Actually I don’t separate the elements of filmmaking in such an abstract manner. For example, the directing of a film, to me, is simply an extension of the process of writing. It’s the process of rendering the thing you have written. You’re still writing when you’re directing. Of course you’re not composing words, but a gesture, the way you make somebody raise his eyes or shake his head is also writing for films. Nor can I answer precisely what the relative importance, to me, of the various aspects of filmmaking is, I mean, whether I pay more attention to writing, directing, editing, or what—have—you. The most important element to me is always the idea that I’m trying to express, and everything technical is only a method to make the idea into clear form. I’m always working on the idea: whether I am writing, directing, choosing music or cutting. Everything must revert back to the idea; when it gets away from the idea it becomes a labyrinth of rococo.
Occasionally one tends to forget the idea, but I have always had reason to regret this whenever it happened. Sometimes you fall in love with a shot, for example. Maybe it is a tour de force as a shot. This is one of the great dangers of directing: to let the camera take over. Audiences very often do not understand this danger, and it is not unusual that camerawork is appreciated in cases where it really has no business in the film, simply because it is decorative or in itself exhibitionistic. I would say that there are maybe half a dozen directors who really know their camera—how to move their camera. It’s a pity that critics often do not appreciate this. On the other hand I think it’s OK that audiences should not be aware of this. In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically. —How I Make Films: Interview with John Huston, Film Quarterly, Fall 1965
Lost Highway screenplay by David Lynch and Barry Gifford [pdf]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
“You can say that a lot of Lost Highway is internal. It’s Fred’s story. It’s not a dream: It’s realistic, though according to Fred’s logic. But I don’t want to say too much. The reason is: I love mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger… everything becomes so intense in those moments. When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there’s got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going. It’s like at the end of Chinatown: The guy says, ‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.’ You understand it, but you don’t understand it, and it keeps that mystery alive. That’s the most beautiful thing. For me, a film exists somewhere before you do it. It’s sitting in some abstract world, complete, and you’re just listening to it talk to you, telling you the way it’s supposed to be. But not until all the sound and music and editing has been done do you truly know what it is. Then it’s finished. It feels right, the way it’s supposed to be, or as right as it can. And when it’s finished, you’re back in a world where you don’t control anything. You just do the best you can, then say farewell.” —Rolling Stone, March 6, 1997 Lost Highway Lynch Interview
The first time I lay actual eyes on the real David Lynch on the set of his movie, he’s peeing on a tree. This is on 8 January in L.A.’s Griffith Park, where some of Lost Highway’s exteriors and driving scenes are being shot. He is standing in the bristly underbrush off the dirt road between the base camp’s trailers and the set, peeing on a stunted pine. Mr. David Lynch, a prodigious coffee drinker, apparently pees hard and often, and neither he nor the production can afford the time it’d take to run down the base camp’s long line of trailers to the trailer where the bathrooms are every time he needs to pee. So my first (and generally representative) sight of Lynch is from the back, and (understandably) from a distance. Lost Highway’s cast and crew pretty much ignore Lynch’s urinating in public, (though I never did see anybody else relieving themselves on the set again, Lynch really was exponentially busier than everybody else.) and they ignore it in a relaxed rather than a tense or uncomfortable way, sort of the way you’d ignore a child’s alfresco peeing. —David Foster Wallace VISITS THE SET OF DAVID LYNCH’S NEW MOVIE AND FINDS THE DIRECTOR BOTH grandly admirable AND sort of nuts
Paul Thomas Anderson on filmmaking — part II at filmschoolthrucommentaries
Previously on Cinephilia and Beyond: