hollywood, spike jonze, filmmaking

rebels-on-the-backlotGreetings from the “other side” of Europe, where we are working on bringing Raindance to Budapest.  Why Budapest you ask?  Because its the hottest runaway production spot in Europe right now and has the potential to be the new filmmaking capital of Europe.   And local talent is gaining momentum also  (we just had yet another film in Competition in Cannes).  Our hope is that Raindance Budapest becomes a surfboard for the up and coming young talent who wants to quickly jump onto the filmmaking wave crashing through the region.

I was sitting on a plane back to Budapest for something like 12 hours the other day and read through a book called Rebels on the Backlot by Sharon Waxman, about how 6 indie directors – Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher – managed to break in and put their stamp on Hollywood filmmaking in the 90’s with films like Traffic, Pulp Fiction, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Boogie Nights, and Fight Club.

So in keeping with Raindance style, here’s 5 Things I Learned While Reading the Above Mentioned Book on a Very Long Transatlantic Flight.

1. Be Nice

We all know the importance of showing respect for your crew in the independent film world, and the same holds true for large-budget studio films.  The set of David O. Russell’s Three Kings was notorious for Russell’s tantrums towards his crew, and his open feud with then still just TV-star George Clooney.  It all culminated with Clooney and Russell in an exchange of punches and Fuck You’s.

Some believe the studio afterwards didn’t make much of a marketing push for Three Kings leading up to the Academy Awards, because studio executives didn’t want to reward Russell’s antics on the set.   As a result Three Kings – which Harvey Weinstein privately thought was the best film of the year – didn’t get even one nomination.

2. Don’t Compromise Your Vision

Steven SoderberghWhen (finally) making Traffic, Steven Soderbergh decided to give a very different look to the three worlds in the storyline.  For example, all the Mexico scenes are a bright yellow tinted sepia tone.  The suburban scenes are very bright, an effect he got by „flashing” the film, a risky process done during development of the 35mm film.  Needless to stay the studio people weren’t the least bit happy with any of this experimental filmmaking, especially the risky flashing technique which in case of a mishap could cost lots of money.  So when the second day’s shoot simply disappeared from the film, the producers didn’t tell a soul, and put off the reshoot until the end of production.   In the end it paid off, with Traffic becoming one of the most critically acclaimed studio films in years and winning a lot of gold Oscar statues.

It’s important to stick to your unique ideas, no matter how unorthodox, especially when its what will distinguish your film from all the others out there.

3. Learn to Listen

After the success of Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson went into his next project with a lot of confidence, a list of demands, and Tom Cruise ready to star.  He wrote and directed Magnolia, a three and a half hour opus about skeletons in the closet and frogs falling from the sky.   Naturally nearly everyone who saw the film before it premiered said two things: it’s genious, and it’s too long.  But Anderson had negotiated Final Cut rights into his contract, and outright refused to listen to anyone trying to sabotage his Great Work.

A few years later even Anderson admitted he could have made the film more digestible, and should have cut some scenes.  Sometimes you have to compromise your vision.

4. It’s OK to Steal

TarantinoThat’s right, steal like crazy.  Or if that notion bothers you, recycle.  That’s what Tarantino did, and still does.  He takes bits and pieces from old films, from things he heard on the street, from scripts his friends wrote.  This is the age of recycling and remixing anyway, and with all the media out there, most of it long forgotten, there is plenty to choose from. Its what Tarantino does so well – use scenes, shots, dialogues, themes from cult classics, from long-forgotten flicks, from B-movies, adds some great music and old actors everyone has forgotten about, then meshes it with his own ideas to create new classics of modern pop culture. It’s not stealing, its paying respect.  Its not nicking, it’s giving the movie cultural depth.   It’s showing off your cultural film knowledge.

Of course, its always nice to give credit to those who gave you ideas or helped along the way.  Something that some of Tarantino’s ex-friends have accused him of refusing to do.

5. Work Hard and Be Lucky

Naturally every director or producer who ever made a decent movie did it with persistence and hard work.  But sometimes you have to be lucky also.   I recently heard at a party: „Your life largely depends on when you get to the street corner, and who you bump into there.”

Being John Malkovich is always referred to as the movie that shouldn’t have gotten made in Hollywood.  The story behind the story is that it got made with a combination of hard work, and luck.

Once the project actually started to look like it had a realistic chance at being made, the studio kept asking them to reduce the budget, pretty much looking for excuses against green lighting this strange movie.   When they managed to get the budget down, the studio required a headlining star.  John Cusack was actually thrilled to be considered – he had read the script, which had become famous in Hollywood circles – then Cameron Diaz came on board.

Meanwhile Spike Jonze also needed to get Malkovich (hard to make Being John Malkovich without John Malkovich) – first contact him (which he did through his then-wife’s daddy – i.e. Sofia’s dad Francis Ford Coppola), then convince him to make fun of himself, then get him to do it cheap.  After thinking it through Malkovich agreed, even told the filmmakers to turn up the satire a notch (Malkovich described it as „a lose-lose situation” for him, so he had to say yes), and eventually agreed to do it for $350,000 – significantly less than his original $1m asking price.  After the shoot, Jonze spent months editing the movie, philosophizing long and hard about its pace, its ending, the extent of the side storylines.  Significant parts were cut over a long post process.   All in all it was a meticulous and thought-out production, from the script development to post production.

Where the production of Being John Malkovich had gotten strangely lucky, was that the studio paying for it, Polygram, was up for sale.  At the start of filming Polygram executives, fearing their jobs, were worried about the film’s tone, the bland look of its main female star, the strange lighting, and everything else.  But then Polygram was sold to USA films and became the property of Universal Studios, the film was pretty much left to its own devices, with no interference from above during the changeover.  No one raised questions about why Cameron Diaz was uglified to look as bland as possible, why Jonze was lighting the set with table lamps, why the whole movie had such a dark feel – and the checks from the studio kept coming.   It afforded the shoot a creative freedom, and a stress-free environment, with a steady stream of finance from the studio system.  Not a bad deal.